By Jim Henry
Globe Sports Editor
Missouri Southern and Northwest Missouri State — both coming off their biggest victories to date this season — collide this afternoon at Fred G. Hughes Stadium.
The Lions (5-2) knocked off No. 4-ranked Missouri Western 31-30 last Saturday in St. Joseph. It was the Lions’ first victory over a ranked team since a 35-34 decision at Missouri Western in 2009.
“Last week, all week, the defense, offense, special teams, we all said we need to have an excellent week of practice, focus, intensity, and you saw on Saturday that it carried over,” linebacker Aaron Hall said. “We keep on getting better every week, and right now we are the best that we have been all season.”
The Lions took the lead on J.J. Jones’ one-yard run and Dallas Herndon’s extra point with two minutes left, and the defense stopped the Griffons’ last two possessions with a fumble recovery by Hall and interception by Brian Rodgers.
“There has been a lot of talk this week, a lot of encouragement, a lot of congratulations, a lot of keep it rolling,” quarterback Kellen Cox said. “This is what we need, this is what this campus needed, a win over a ranked team. Sure we have regrets from earlier in the season, but we are 5-2. ... We have opportunity right in front of us and we are excited.”
The No. 5 Bearcats (6-1) downed then No. 1 Pittsburg State 31-21 in Arrowhead Stadium. The Bearcats trailed 14-0 early in the second half but ran off 31 straight points, the last 21 in a 5 1/2-minute stretch in the fourth period on a fourth-down, 29-yard pass from Trevor Adams to John Hinchey and James Franklin runs of 3 and 14 yards.
Franklin finished with 115 yards on 20 carries, and Adams hit 17-of-30 passes for 192 yards and two scores.
“I think they are probably the best team in the country right now,” Lions coach Daryl Daye said. “They beat the No. 1 team in the country in Pittsburg State and our conference, without a doubt, is the best conference in the country in Division II.
“We had a very physical ball game with a physical football team in Western, and now we are going to play a very physical team in Northwest. They are outstanding, they have every base covered. They are good on special teams, offense and defense.”
The Lions are second in the MIAA in rushing offense (269.0 yards per game) while the Bearcats are second in rushing defense (113.0 after holding PSU to 86 yards last week). The Bearcats also have given up a league-low 13.0 points per game.
A healthy offensive line has aided the Lions’ ground game.
“The offensive line, that is where it starts,” Cox said. “They are on the ground almost every play, throwing their body at those guys every play. This is the third week that they have been working together, and they have done a magnificent job. You can just tell because of the movement off the ball, and they were making all the right reads and blocks.”
The Bearcats have not allowed an opponent to rush for more than 180 yards, and the Lions’ lowest rushing output this season is 151 yards against Central Missouri — the only time they have gained less than 200 yards.
The Lion defense is third in the league, yielding 113.3 yards on the ground, and they are sixth in both total defense (356.0) and scoring defense (22.3). The Bearcats average 447 yards per game and are sixth in the country in scoring at 43.7 points per game.
“It’s an experienced team. They make very few mistakes,” Hall said. “Last year ... every time we messed up, they capitalized on it. So we have to make sure that we make as few mistakes as possible.”