Independence claims inaugural Midwest Classic Bowl

NEO's Darwin Thompson carries the ball for a first down and some as he breaks away from ICC's Tim Fasion (4) during Sunday's game in Miami, Oklahoma. Globe | Derek Livingston

MIAMI, Okla. — The inaugural Midwest Classic Bowl had it all.

The hometown Norsemen. The lively Pirates. The scouts. And, of course, the cameras.

Seventh-ranked Independence Community College outlasted No. 4 Northeastern Oklahoma A&M 30-20 in front of 4,230 fans and approximately 50 college coaches Sunday afternoon at Red Robertson Stadium.

It was the first bowl victory in five tries for Independence (9-2), and its first postseason appearance since 1997, the same year they last won the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference.

“It was a tough game,” Pirates second-year coach Jason Brown said. “We played hard, we got a little battle-tested and our guys persevered through it all. It’s great for the town, great for everybody in the NJCAA.”

The Norsemen (8-3) saw their eight-game winning streak come to a close, as the Southwest Junior College Football Conference champions made their 18th appearance in a bowl game and 31st postseason appearance. NEO’s postseason record is now 16-15-1.

“We made some mistakes early,” NEO second-year coach Clay Patterson said. “We knew we didn’t have a lot of room for error, and the turnovers hurt. We overcame a couple of them, but not all of them. When you play a great football team you’ve got to play on point, and we weren’t tonight.”

The Independence players were certainly a lively bunch, regularly spending time after the whistle providing a few extra words with the Norsemen.

“We wanted to come out of this feeling good about our team character-wise,” Patterson said. “I thought we handled this game with class and came out the right way, and that’s important to us.”

Independence, which boasts 34 FBS-caliber players according to Brown, welcomed in Netflix’s Last Chance U to film the happenings of the 2017 football season. With a Netflix crew on site to document one of the Pirates’ biggest games in program history, the lights weren’t too bright for Independence.

“It’s going to be the best episode ya’ll seen,” Independence freshman running back Rakeem Boyd. “We just set the bar for a lot of kids coming in and a lot of recruits, so it’s good for a JUCO that’s just getting on the map.”

The Pirates held a significant edge in time of possession with 37 minutes, 33 seconds compared to NEO’s 21:37. And with the Pirates down to third-string quarterback Drake Smith, they relied on their offensive line and Boyd, a former Texas A&M Aggie.

Boyd carried the load with 35 carries for 215 yards and three touchdowns. He was named the game’s offensive MVP for his efforts.

“It means a lot,” Boyd said. “I didn’t even know I was going to get it. Priceless.”

“We had to get the run game going because they ran a lot of man coverage, and we had a rookie quarterback playing,” Brown added. “But we didn’t want to put too much on him, so we put it on our big o-line up front to get the win. We grounded and pounded it, and our guys showed up. Rakeem was a workhorse today.”

The Norsemen weren’t too shabby on the ground themselves, as sophomore Darwin Thompson rushed for 100 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries.

“Darwin is a special player, and someone’s going to get a special player,” Patterson said. “He tried to take over this game but we just didn’t have enough behind him to go. But Darwin’s one of the best players to play at NEO.”

The Norsemen had plenty of success on offense — 442 total yards — but turnovers proved costly. Independence recovered two fumbles and recorded three interceptions thrown by NEO quarterback Wyatt Steigerwald.

“They’re very multiple on defense from a coverage standpoint,” Patterson said. “They were able to confuse our quarterbacks and receivers. They did a great job on defense and had a good plan against us.”

It was all defense early before Independence’s Jamal Scott scored on a 3-yard run with 3:18 left in the first quarter. The touchdown was set up by a 56-yard passing play from Drake Smith to Margwell Odom.

The Norsemen defense provided a spark their next time out as Ayodele Ologolo intercepted Smith and returned it 24 yards to the NEO 48. Just minutes into the second quarter, Thompson ran in a 9-yard touchdown to knot the score at 7-all.

The Pirates, however, countered with a 10-play, 73-yard scoring drive, capped by a Boyd 5-yard rushing score.

Independence’s Delrick Abrams intercepted Steigerwald before the Pirates settled for a 34-yard field goal by Nino Alibegic to give his team a 17-7 lead with 6:44 left in the first half.

Jace Sternberger made consecutive impressive catches to keep the Norsemen’s next drive alive. Steigerwald connected with Marquan Greene for a 29-yard touchdown play to bring the halftime score to 17-14.

The third quarter belonged to Boyd, who went to work for a 66-yard rushing touchdown to provide Independence with a 24-14 lead just minutes into the third quarter. On the other side of the frame, Boyd punched in a 1-yard rush to hand the Pirates a 30-14 advantage.

The Norsemen responded with a Thompson 6-yard touchdown run to bring the score to 30-20. But after punts on back-to-back possessions, Steigerwald was stripped and lost possession on Independence’s 5-yard line with 3:22 remaining.

“They have a lot of Division I players, and they showed up tonight,” Patterson said. “It was a really good football game and it was a helluva way to go out for us to be at home and to have all the people here.”

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