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Meet Northwest Missouri State, the Division II team with a winning streak longer than Bama’s

The Bearcats have crushed everything in their path, and now they’re 60 minutes from back-to-back championships.

Todd Weddle, Northwest Missouri State University
Celebrating last year’s DII national title.
Courtesy of Todd Weddle, Northwest Missouri State University

On Saturday, Northwest Missouri State will play North Alabama for the NCAA’s Division II football national championship (4 p.m. ET, ESPN2). Northwest is the defending champ, having gone 15-0 last year including a rout of Shepherd in this game.

The Bearcats are a tidy 14-0 this year, giving them a 29-game winning streak. That’s the longest in all of NCAA football, ahead of Nick Saban’s Alabama at 25.

Winning a second title in a row would put Northwest a little closer to an even more difficult piece of history. The longest winning streak in DII history is 40 games, begun by rival Grand Valley State in 2005 (and ended in a 2007 loss to Northwest). The Bearcats are in striking distance.

“I’ll be real candid with you,” said Adam Dorrel, the Bearcats’ sixth-year head coach. “What you just said to me, I’ve never even heard that before. I don’t know how to explain it to people, because I know when I talk to people, they don’t believe me.”

Dorrel was speaking from the team’s bus on Thursday, en route from their campus in Maryville, Mo., to the title game in Kansas City, Kan.

What they have accomplished could already be called a dynasty. The program has five national titles, all since 1998, with three since 2009, two under Dorrel. A win this weekend would make four in eight years and three in four.

This season, the Bearcats’ numbers are astounding. The average scoring margin in a Northwest game is 46.6-12.6. The team is third in DII in scoring offense and first in scoring defense, with other top-10 marks up and down the stat sheet on both sides of the ball.

Northwest and Saban’s Alabama both win by four possessions or more most of the time, and they’re both hunting second-straight national titles.

And Northwest has been more dominant, relative to its competition. The next opponent to get close to an upset will be the first. The best anyone’s done against Northwest was Ferris State only losing by 15 in a national semifinal last week.

Only three teams have scored more than 20 points on this defense in a single game, while Northwest has scored that many in seven individual quarters.

The Bearcats have established their primacy in other, more subtle ways, such as by blocking 12 kicks in 14 games. Remind you of Alabama’s non-offensive touchdowns this year?

“Let me go to the PATs,” Dorrel said. “How many times do you watch a football game, at any level, and everybody just takes the play off? Our defensive coaches do a great job of not allowing our players to take the play off. We get them to buy into, ‘If you can block a PAT, it changes the complexion of a game.’ And then we practice the heck out of it.”

When you win every game by at least 15 points, PATs don’t matter. But the Bearcats want to block them all anyway, because it’s what they do.

There is no weakness. The special teams make splash plays to supplement the elite defense and the elite offense. The kicker, Simon Mathieson, has drained 18-of-21 field goals. Opponents have made 5-of-10, because Division II teams have at least as many kicking problems as Division I teams have.

The most interesting number: not a single Northwest player leads the country in a major statistical category.

This program’s got history.

Northwest has been playing football since 1908, but it took until the 1990s for the Bearcats to churn. Mel Tjeerdsma went 0-11 in his inaugural season in 1994, but he had the Bearcats up to 11-2 two seasons later, claiming a conference co-championship. The first national titles arrived in ‘98 and ‘99.

The Bearcats lost four national title games in a row from 2005 through 2008. Tjeerdsma won a third title in 2009 and retired a year later. To replace him, the school elevated Scott Bostwick, Tjeerdsma’s defensive coordinator since 1994. But before Bostwick ever coached as the boss, he died at 49 of a heart attack.

Offensive coordinator Dorrel became the head coach. He won the 2013 and 2015 national titles, and he’s 76-8 overall heading into Saturday’s final.

“I think the thing that we did immediately as a staff is, we sat down and I just told everybody, ‘You know, I can’t be Mel Tjeerdsma, and I can’t be Coach Bostwick, but I can be Adam Dorrel,’” he recalled. “‘I’m confident that’s gonna be good enough.’”

Dorrel didn’t want to make “wholesale changes.” But he expanded the Bearcats’ recruiting footprint beyond its classic terrain of Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa. He went into places like Wisconsin and Chicago, which don’t have DII programs. He competed with FCS schools like South Dakota, Northern Iowa, and South Dakota State, when he thought it made sense. And he brought Northwest’s recruiting operation to Florida, where there are more good players than the state’s 11 DI programs can snap up.

“They just add a really explosive, dynamic type of athlete that we’re not able to get around here,” Dorrel said.

Northwest has also accepted drop-down players whose FBS journeys weren’t working out, as long as those players are willing to “do it the right way,” Dorrel said. Among them is Harold Brantley, a former rising defensive line star at Missouri who landed in Maryville this year and is one of 15 Bearcats to record a sack, also scoring a TD here:

“We aren’t into using recruiting services or looking at somebody that tells us if a kid’s a good player or not,” Dorrel said. “We’re gonna look at the kid and make that assumption on our own. We’re looking for tall, rangy kids. We don’t have a problem with moving a kid. Let’s say you find a kid, they played quarterback in high school. We don’t have any problem with moving that kid to tight end or linebacker or projecting out.”

Dorrel’s coaching philosophy: be good at defense (even if it means investing more of the program’s NCAA-limited scholarship portions on that side), be multiple and adaptable on offense, and be “very, very fundamentally sound” on special teams.

Northwest isn’t thinking about history. But the reasoning isn’t exactly what you’d think.

When asked about the streak, his response wasn’t just that he’d rather just focus on Saturday.

“I didn’t get into coaching because I just wanted to win football games and win championships,” Dorrel said. “I believe that it’s the greatest game on the earth. I think you take rich kids, poor kids, kids from all different backgrounds that come together. It’s extremely powerful. I do know how we don’t get trapped into pressure. We as a staff and our kids have a lot of fun together.

“We enjoy being together. Myself and our staff are kind of quirky, and we do some quirky things at practice. Kids show up over at the complex. They walk out of English class, and it feels like they’re going to recess. It doesn’t feel like they’re going to work, and I think that’s a really key ingredient to what we’re able to accomplish here at Northwest. We have phenomenal kids.”