Northwest Missouri State eliminates Harding in Division 2 football playoffs

KIRKSVILLE, Mo. ( – Northwest Missouri State's defense is one of the best in NCAA Division II football, and when Harding lost its top two fullbacks, running the triple-option offense became even more difficult.

Northwest Missouri took full advantage of Harding's injuries and defeated the Bisons 35-0 on Saturday in the first round of the Division II Playoffs. The Bearcats advance to meet Super Region 3's top-seeded team, Minnesota State Mankato, next Saturday in Mankato, Minn.

Harding's season, its best in 40 years, came to an end with a 9-2 overall record. It was Harding's first NCAA playoff game since joining the organization in 1997 and its first playoff berth since qualifying for the NAIA tournament in 1992.

Harding lost starting fullback Romo Westbrook to an ankle injury on the Bisons' first play from scrimmage. Backup fullback D'Nico Jackson-Best came out just before halftime, also with an ankle injury.

Starting quarterback Kelvin Martin, who played fullback as a sophomore in 2010, volunteered to move to fullback and let backup Keenan Kellett take over under center.

Harding brought only two fullbacks on the road because of a 54-player roster limit in NCAA playoff games.

Even with the injuries, Harding still rushed for 304 yards, just 18 yards off its season average. Martin carried the load, rushing 22 times for 97 yards. Jackson-Best had 62 yards on nine carries before leaving the game. Junior Ty Finley had 51 yards on seven carries.

Northwest Missouri (10-2) scored on its first possession of the game, with Billy Creason scoring from a yard out with 10:09 left to make it 7-0.

Harding had its best drive of the game on its first possession. The Bisons drove to the Bearcat 7 before a fumble ended the threat.

Northwest Missouri added a 14-yard touchdown pass from Trevor Adams to John Hinchley, and a 6-yard touchdown run by Kohlman Adema-Schulte and led 21-0 at halftime.

The Bearcats were also without their top two running backs. Leading rusher James Franklin left the game after suffering an injury on Northwest Missouri's second play. Senior Jordan Simmons, a running back who also led the Bearcats in receptions, broke his arm in practice this week and did not play.

Creason, Northwest Missouri's third-string running back, rushed 18 times for 113 yards, becoming the first Harding opponent to rush for more than 100 yards this season.

Adams threw his second touchdown pass to Tyler Shaw with 9:17 left in the game, and Brady Bolles finished off the scoring with a 4-yard touchdown run with 2:55 remaining.

Adams completed 17-of-25 passes for 212 yards. Shaw made five catches for 119 yards.

Harding had nine wins in a season for the first time since 2002 and for only the third time in program history. The loss to Northwest Missouri was Harding's first in seven games away from home in 2012.