ALLENDALE, Michigan – The Northwest Missouri State Bearcat football team used a punishing ground game and slowed down the Grand Valley State passing attack for a 42-17 victory at Lubbers Stadium in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Division II playoffs.
Northwest (10-2 overall) rushed for 356 yards and the Bearcat defense held the Lakers to 128 yards passing. GVSU came into the game averaging nearly 270 yards per game through the air. The Lakers finished the season at 10-2 overall.
Bearcat running backs Isaiah Strayhorn and Josh Caldwell took their turns attacking the Lakers on the ground. Strayhorn rushed for 171 yards, including an 84-yard score at the end of the third quarter that stifled any momentum the Lakers had for a comeback. Caldwell tallied 147 rushing yards and a pair of 28-yard touchdown scampers. Strayhorn also posted an additional rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter.
The Bearcat defensive effort was led by Austen Eskew’s three quarterback sacks, Jack Richards’s two interceptions and Ben Althoff’s team-best 12 tackles.
Northwest wasted little time getting on the scoreboard as the Bearcats found the end zone three plays into the game. Redshirt freshman Braden Wright hit senior wide receiver Shawn Bane Jr. on a crossing route of the middle on a third-and-11 play. Bane broke a tackle and raced 51 yards to the end zone for a touchdown.
Bearcat senior defensive end Austen Eskew recorded a sack to thwart a Laker drive. The Lakers then pinned Northwest on the 1-yard line for the Bearcats’s ensuing drive. On second down, Wright fumbled the snap and GVSU defensive lineman Dylan Carroll fell on the loose ball in the end zone for a Laker touchdown with 4:58 left in the first quarter.
Northwest regained the lead in the second quarter when the Bearcats drove 75 yards in 11 plays and took a 14-7 advantage. Wright connected with junior tight end Marqus Andrews on a one-yard toss with 7:10 left in the second.
GVSU kicker J.J. McGrath pulled the Lakers to within four before halftime with a 35-yard field goal. McGrath’s kick left Northwest with a 14-10 lead with 2:35 on the clock.
Senior safety Jack Richards intercepted a Bart Williams pass with 6:10 left in the third quarter. Northwest took full advantage of the turnover when senior running back Josh Caldwell took it 28 yards on the ground for a touchdown. Caldwell’s score gave Northwest a 21-10 lead with 4:16 left in the third quarter.
The Lakers trimmed the margin back to four at 21-17 following a two-yard touchdown plunge by Jack Provencher with 1:02 left in the third quarter.
However, Northwest answered back immediately when running back Isaiah Strayhorn, evoking memories of an Xavier Omon playoff touchdown run against the Lakers, broke through for an 84-yard touchdown run of his own. Strayhorn’s gallop gave Northwest a 28-17 advantage with 0:42 remaining in the third quarter.
Strayhorn added a 3-yard rushing touchdown with 4:06 left in the fourth quarter. Strayhorn’s touchdown was his second of the day and gave Northwest a 35-17 lead over the Lakers.
Caldwell put an emphatic ending to the win when he barreled into the end zone for his second 28-yard rushing score with 1:37 left in the fourth quarter.
Northwest will play at Ferris State next Saturday in the second round of the NCAA Division II playoffs. Ferris State knocked off Harding, 21-19.
NOTES: It is Northwest’s first road playoff win since a 38-31 overtime win at Midwestern State (Texas) on Nov. 26, 2011 … Northwest has won a Division II-best 48 playoff games … Northwest is 18-0 when leading at halftime under head coach Rich Wright … Shawn Bane Jr.’s touchdown was the 30th career touchdown reception for the senior from Sarasota, Florida … Caldwell has rushed for 35 career touchdowns, including 11 this season for the Bearcats … Caldwell delivered his second straight 100-yard rushing performance – the 17th of his collegiate career … Strayhorn notched his second 100-yard rushing game of his Northwest career … Northwest gained 448 total yards, while limiting Grand Valley State to 239 total yards.