By Ryan Atkinson
Globe Sports Writer
KANSAS CITY, Mo. —
Two fourth-down plays in the fourth quarter were monumental in a drastic momentum shift on Saturday night that led to the downfall of the top-ranked team in the land.
No. 7 Northwest Missouri came up with huge plays on both of those fourth-down snaps, part of the Bearcats’ 31 unanswered points that erased a 14-point deficit and led to a 31-21 win over the No. 1 Pittsburg State Gorillas in the Fall Classic at Arrowhead XI.
We’ll start with the Gorillas, who built a 14-0 lead with a dominating seven-play, 87-yard drive to open the second half.
After Northwest (6-1, 5-1 MIAA) had cut the lead to 14-10, Pitt State (5-1, 5-1) looked to be headed for the end zone again and what would have been an 11-point advantage early in the fourth quarter. That was what head coach Tim Beck had in mind when he elected to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Bearcat 17.
But Mandel Dixon was stopped inches short and Northwest took over.
“That was a tough decision. It was a big part of the game and I felt like we were really moving the ball,” Beck said. “We were up by four and I felt like we needed to go get the first down and drive it down for the score. I felt like trying to go down and get that score was more important that kicking the field goal.”
On Northwest’s next drive — which was set up by the first of two Anthony Abenoja interceptions — the Bearcats faced a fourth-and 4 from the Pitt State 29. After a timeout, quarterback Trevor Adams hit John Hinchey for a 29-yard touchdown pass that gave the Bearcats a 17-14 lead with 10:18 to play.
“It was a concept we had run a few times and had pretty good success with,” Adams said. “Hinchey did a good job of running the right route ... and it worked out where he did the rest.”
Pitt State’s next two possessions ended in a punt and an interception, and both led to James Franklin touchdown runs that continued the shocking turnaround — which was reminiscent of Pitt State’s furious second-half rally from 21 points down for a win in the 2011 Classic.
“The first half was a great defensive football game … and then we come out and take the opening drive to score and go up 14-0 and that was kind of it for us,” Beck said. “We were about done after that for whatever reason. You’ve got to give Northwest Missouri a ton of credit. They played extremely hard and when the momentum shifted their way, we couldn’t get it stopped.”
Pitt State held Northwest to just 52 yards of offense in the first half — 27 passing and 25 rushing — but the Bearcats’ halftime adjustments paid obvious dividends.
Northwest rushed for 134 yards and passed for 115 in the second half, much of that made easier by the fact that the Pitt State pass rush was slowed after halftime.
“They threw a lot of play-action and boots, which slows us down because we have to respect the run and they have a great run game,” Pitt State senior defensive end Gus Toca said. “That slowed us down a lot.”
The Gorillas, meanwhile, struggled offensively in the second half outside of the dominant opening drive and a late drive that made it 31-21.
“We had to hunker down and stop the run. We knew they were going to try and get the ball to (John Brown),” Northwest senior linebacker Matt Massey said. “The D-line played great and the secondary shut them down to where they didn’t have very many big plays. That was a big emphasis ... stopping the big plays.”
Brown, Pitt State’s star receiver, finished the day with eight catches for 84 yards and two scores — including a 13-yarder in traffic for the game’s first score — but he wasn’t able to spring the big play he has become known for.
“They did a good job all day with how they handled him, at times making sure they bracketed him and put a guy over the top of him,” Beck said. “That should have opened up things on the other side of the ball, but we didn’t take advantage of it very well. We were out of sync at times.”
Abenoja finished 25-of-46 with 278 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Briceton Wilson rushed for 71 yards on 13 carries.
Franklin had 117 yards and two touchdowns for Northwest while Adams threw for 192 yards with two interceptions and two scores.