Eagles set to host Northwest Missouri State in first round of playoffs

Noah Cloonan

The Ashland University football team ended the season playing some of the best football in the country as they rattled off 10 straight wins and locked up the No. 3 seed in Super Region Three.

The road to a national championship has officially begun and the first hurdle for the Eagles might be the biggest one of the entire playoffs as AU will host the two-time defending national champion Northwest Missouri State Bearcats (9-2) in the first round.

The Bearcats came into the season as the No. 1 ranked team in the country and they stayed that way throughout the first half of the season before they slipped up in week nine against Pittsburg State and then again in week 10 against Fort Hayes State.

The two losses for the Bearcats were by a combined 11 points and knocked them down to the No. 6 seed in the regional rankings.

Northwest Missouri State’s calling card this season has been their defense. It’s a defense that has made a name for themselves around the college football world and coming into the playoffs after throwing up their fifth shutout of the season.

The Bearcats enter the postseason with the top ranked defense in the country in multiple categories. Northwest Missouri State is first in total defense allowing just over 207 yards per game, first in scoring defense allowing 8.3 points per game and second in rushing defense giving up less than 58 yards a game.

Coupled with their stout defense, the Bearcats have blocked five punts on the year and have not allowed an opponent to score over 20 points in any game this season.

“This is the best looking defensive football team that I can remember coaching against in Division II,” head coach Lee Owens said.

Northwest Missouri State will not be the only stout defense in Jack Miller Stadium on Saturday afternoon as Ashland ranks 11th in the nation in scoring defense giving up just 14.6 points per game. The defense for Ashland was a big question mark coming into the season after losing their top three tacklers from a season ago, but it did not take long for them to prove themselves.

“We took that and we’re just like we gotta make doubters believers,” junior defensive end James Prater said. “And in football there is always gonna be people who doubt you and even in life there is gonna be people that doubt you, and you just always and I mean always simply just have to prove them wrong.”

Prater has certainly proved the doubters wrong as he has emerged as one of the top pass rushers in the country. Prater has already set a school record with 19.5 tackles for a loss to go along with 9.5 sacks. His counterpart, senior Austin Utter has been equally as dominant racking up eight sacks and 12.5 tackles for a loss.

The pressure that the Eagles defensive line has gotten has made the job on the secondary just that much easier.

“It makes our job a little easier,” senior defensive back Michael Griffin said. “We can play a lot more aggressive because we know the quarterback shouldn’t have as much time so we take a little more risk sometimes.”

Prater said that he realized early in the season that it was the responsibilty of the D-line to set the tone for the rest of the defense.

“Our defensive line, we are like the leaders of the defense,” Prater said. “We have to step up in order for the defense to have a successful game. We have to get pressure, we have to stop the run and then everything else will fall into place.”

For Ashland it also helps that sophomore Clay Shreve has blossomed into a tremendous linebacker in the middle of the defense. Shreve leads the way in tackles with 63 on the year and has also forced a sack and recovered a fumble.

“We’ve had a lot of young guys step up and just overall everyone that played in the past just stepped their game up and then all the new guys that have come in have proved themselves,” Griffin said.

Ashland’s defense is not entirely new as they have a pair of senior corners in Griffin and Dale Irby and they have played lights out the entire season.

Irby leads the team with three interceptions and combined Irby and Griffin have 62 tackles and 13 pass breakups.

Ashland has another weapon on their side and that comes in the form of the GLIAC Player of the Year, Travis Tarnowski.

The senior quarterback has saved his best for last as he has already thrown for 2,600 yards and ran for 122 yards. He has also thrown 26 touchdown passes compared to just one interception on the season which is the lowest number in the country.

“I’ve got my top two wide receivers in knee braces, I’ve got my thousand yard rusher not playing, but we’ve got Travis,” Owens said. “So as long as we’ve got Travis you would think we’ve got a chance. He wills you to first downs and scores, so we will put it in his hands again and see what he can do.”

Tarnowski will need to have that will to get first downs on Saturday because Northwest Missouri State is the No. 1 team in the country at stopping third downs allowing opponents to convert just 19 percent of the time.

AU has had success on third downs this season converting on 54 percent of their third down plays which is second in the country.

The Eagles also have another weapon on their side and that is their home crowd.

Ashland comes into Saturday on a 22-game regular season home winning streak and they will try and use that to their advantage against the Bearcats.

“It’s huge, I mean being able to play any team at home, especially with our track record at home, being able to play any team is definitely special at home,” Shreve said. “We think we are gonna go out there and win we absolutely have confidence in that.”

Kickoff is at noon on Saturday and with a win the Eagles would play the winner of No. 2 University of Indianapolis/No. 7 Harding University the following week.