Let it be said that the Northeastern State University RiverHawks didn't flinch when a powerful team was scheduled on their traditional October homecoming weekend.
An winless, injury laden NSU football team needed a miracle when it took the field Saturday against third-ranked Northwest Missouri State with alumni honorees and homecoming royalty in attendance.
A miracle was not to be found as the Bearcats posted a 40-12 victory which was efficient if not spectacular, and RiverHawks head coach Kenny Evans said he saw a bit of upside in the loss.
"I liked the fact that we didn't quit and played for four quarters," Evans said. "We didn't have a lot to lose in this game. One thing I didn't like was that we gave up some big plays."
The Bearcats, 4-0 and 3-0 in the MIAA, punctured the NSU defense for six plays in excess of 20 yards, and three more for 19 yards each. Northwest also blocked an NSU extra point attempt which was returned by cornerback Brian Dixon for two points.
"We managed to score early and establish some confidence," said Northwest head coach Adam Dorrell. "Our defense played well. We would have liked to run our quarterbacks more, but NSU schemed that well. We did get some mileage out of our fly sweeps. That blocked extra point was our fifth blocked kick of the year. There were a lot of penalties by both teams. I think it could have been a cleaner game. But overall, this was a good performance by our players."
Northeastern, 0-5 in league play and overall, was only outscored in the second half 7-6, but both teams seemed intent on giving players game experience after halftime, when the Bearcats led 33-6.
With yet another new starter, Cory Meaders, at the devastated signal calling position, the RiverHawks were conservative on offense. Many of Meaders' pass attempts were quick reads or sideline routes. He finished 12-of-26 for 115 yards and a touchdown.
Late in the third quarter, the Bearcats moved most of its two-deep to the bench.
"We have 24 freshmen who are getting a lot of playing time," Evans said. "Some of them are starting. We have had to pull redshirts off seven players. They team may have looked loose, but I think some of them are still learning how to react when playing against a great team."
Dorrell said he was impressed by the efforts of the RiverHawks, given their circumstances.
"They have lost a ton of players - a ton of starters," he said. "They had a freshman quarterback starting his first game. Anybody involved with that football program can be proud of those players and what they are doing."
Northwest put up the first 24 points of the game, scoring on a 24-yard run by Phil Jackson, two touchdown passes by Trevor Adams of 52 and 40 yards to Jason Jozaites and Marcus Wright, respectively, and a 28-yard field goal by Ben Trewyn.
Meadors hit Tank Richmond for a 12-yard touchdown pass with 2:28 left in the half, but the extra point try was returned by Dixon.
Billy Creason scored from six yards out with 33 seconds left in the second quarter for the halftime score.
NWMSU extended its lead to 40-12 in the third quarter when Brady Bolles connected with Korey Jackson for a 5-yard scoring pass.
NSU closed the scoring with 5:02 left in the fourth quarter when Terrance Dixon reached paydirt on a 5-yard run to cap a 14-play 89-yard drive which used 5:17 of the clock.
Steven Hopper led the RiverHawks' rushing attack with 86 yards on eight carries. Dixon was 24-for-68. Leading receivers were Ray Dobbs with three catches for 32 yards and Josiah Reed with three for 30. Leading tackers for NSU were Langston Jones with 14 and Kyler Harris with 12.
Leading rushers for Northwest were Billy Creason with 42 yards on nine carries, and Phil Jackson, who carried seven times for 35 yards. Reuben Thomas caught five paces for 74 yards, and Jozaites caught two for 63 yards. Leading tackler for the Bearcats was Eric Reimer with 10.
At quarterback, Adams was 11-of-16 for 212 yards and two touchdowns, while Bolles was 10-of-12 for 134 yards and one TD.
NSU next travels to St. Joseph, Mo., on Oct. 12 to face Missouri Western in an MIAA game in Spratt Memorial Stadium at 1:30 p.m.