KEARNEY — University of Nebraska at Kearney is riding a two-game winning streak entering Saturday afternoon’s showdown against seventh-ranked Northwest Missouri at Ron and Carol Cope Stadium at Foster Field.
The Lopers have defeated winless teams in back-to-back weeks, allowing them to gain confidence entering their toughest game of the season.
Here are three areas to watch between the Lopers (4-2) and the undefeated Bearcats:
Biggest game under Lynn
In UNK coach Josh Lynn’s first two years, the Lopers have given Northwest Missouri a competitive game each season. The Lopers lost to the top-ranked Bearcats 13-0 at Foster Field in 2017, and then surrendered 21 first-quarter points to the No. 13 Bearcats in a 27-13 loss in Maryville, Mo., last season.
With the Lopers hoping to post their first winning record since 2011 this season, a victory Saturday would put them in great position to accomplish that task of winning at least six games.
The Lopers last victory over a ranked opponent came against No. 20 Colorado Mines, 45-21, on Nov. 12, 2011 when the Lopers were the fifth-ranked team. They have never defeated a top-10 opponent in their Division II history, according to UNK records. They beat No. 11 Nebraska Omaha 35-17 on Aug. 29, 2002.
“I think the big thing is eliminating mistakes,” UNK coach Josh Lynn said. “The one thing they’ve always done a good job of is jumping on us in the first quarter. They are extremely well coached and disciplined. To beat a team like them, you have to be just as disciplined as they are. Eliminate mistakes and try to control the line of scrimmage (are keys).”
The Bearcats have been a staple atop the MIAA for years and that hasn’t changed this season. They have won their first six games this season after ending last year with a second-round playoff loss to Ferris State.
They are the second-best scoring team in the conference at an average of 46.7 points per game while their defense has allowed the fourth-fewest points per game (22.7). The Bearcats have an extremely balanced offense, averaging 229.3 passing yards per game compared to 227.8 rushing yards per contest.
Leading the Bearcats’ offense is sophomore quarterback Braden Wright of Elkhorn. The reigning MIAA Freshman of the Year is having another notable season, completing 53 percent of his passes for 1,191 yards, 13 touchdowns and five interceptions.
“For us in general, over the course of the year our goal is to eliminate the big plays,” Lynn said. “They do a great job of a run-pass mix, so we have to be sound and not let anything over the top.”
The Lopers have been as close to one dimensional as it gets on offense. They are the second-best rushing team in Division II, averaging 337.3 yards per game, while sitting second-last in the MIAA at 138.5 passing yards per contest.
On Sept. 28, the Lopers totaled 76 passing yards in a 37-14 loss to nationally-ranked Pittsburg State. At that time, the Lopers were splitting the quarterback duties between senior Alex McGinnis and redshirt freshman TJ Davis.
Davis, a dual-threat QB, has since taken over the starting duties and is playing the bulk of the snaps. He had his best passing performance in his six-game collegiate career against Lincoln University last Saturday when he completed 5 of 9 attempts for 111 yards.
The Lopers made it a priority to attack Lincoln through the air, which allowed Davis to gain confidence in preparation for the Bearcats, Lynn said.
The Bearcats are allowing 271.1 passing yards per game. They lead the MIAA with 11 interceptions.
“Our message is to continue to do what we do, but our job as coaches is to get him in a situation where he is successful throwing the football,” Lynn said. “This will be his biggest test.”