Lincoln to take on unranked Northwest Missouri

Lincoln running back Omar Allen looks for room after getting a handoff from quarterback Xzavier Vaughn (2) during last Saturday night’s game against Washburn at Dwight T. Reed Stadium. (Collin Yung/News Tribune)

Today has the looks of a measuring-stick game for the Lincoln Blue Tigers.

The Blue Tigers will travel to take on the Northwest Missouri Bearcats, and the team will quickly figure out how big the gap is between themselves and the perennial powerhouse Bearcats.

Kickoff is scheduled for noon in Maryville. The start time was moved up from 1:30 p.m. due to expected bad weather in the area.

“Northwest Missouri is a really good football team,” Lincoln coach Jermaine Gales said. “In order to beat the best, you have to be able to compete with the best, you have to play against the best and you have to put your best product out there. They have been traditionally a really good football team, and we are excited to line up against them to see exactly where we are at.”

The Bearcats (1-2) enter today in unfamiliar territory after dropping the past two games and falling out of the AFCA Division II top 25 rankings for the first time since, Nov. 11, 2003.

Regardless of ranking or record, Lincoln (0-3) knows Northwest Missouri will never be an easy team to line up against.

“We got to go line up and we are going to play who’s on the schedule,” Gales said. “This week is Northwest, and it doesn’t matter if they are ranked, unranked, they are a great football team. We have to make sure all our I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed.”

The Bearcats are dealing with an injury to starting quarterback Mike Hohensee, who is expected to miss today’s game, and have struggled to get their offense going while cycling through a pair of backups in redshirt freshman Henry Martin (6-foot-1, 186 pounds) and sophomore Chris Ruhnke (6-1, 197).

Ruhnke originally replaced Hohensee after he was injured during the team’s 33-13 loss to Emoria State, but he struggled and finished 7-of-22 passing for 98 yards with no touchdowns and four interceptions.

Martin entered to replace Ruhnke after his struggled and has completed 26-of-43 passes for 237 yards with zero touchdowns and a pick in the past two games, including going 21-for-35 passing for 162 yards with no touchdowns or turnovers during last week’s 17-6 loss to Fort Hays State.

“They are very, very diligent in their efforts as far as running the football and throwing the football,” Gales said.

Helping out the quarterbacks will be a run game led by sophomore running back Jay Harris (6-2, 212), who has totaled 355 rushing yards and three scores on 77 attempts.

Sophomore Tank Young (5-7, 178) will also see time and has been a big-play threat out of the backfield, tallying 75 yards on just 10 carries.

The Bearcats’ rushing attack is helped by a big offensive line with four of the five starters weighing in at more than 300 pounds.

“I expect them to be fundamentally sound,” Gales said. “They are ginormous up front, so it’s going to be a little of a struggle on our defensive front.”

Northwest Missouri spreads the ball out to a number of pass-catching threats with 14 different players catching at least one pass through three games.

Senior Kashan Griffin (6-1, 162) leads the room with 10 catches for 160 yards, while senior Trevon Alexander (6-2, 198) is close behind with 12 receptions for 131 yards and a touchdown.

The Bearcats bring a dominant defense into today’s contest that has allowed 24.7 points per game.

The unit is led by a front seven that is coming off an effort of holding Fort Hays State to seven net rushing yards and just 17 points.

“We have to make sure our execution is on point,” Gales said. “They are huge inside, those two defensive tackles play a good brand of football and their defensive ends are stellar. I understand why they’re holding teams to as many rushing yards as they are.”

Northwest Missouri’s two defensive tackles, junior Keaton Ricke (6-5, 280) and sophomore Nile Schuett (6-3, 280), jump out on film the most.

Lincoln knows it will have its hands full trying to run the football.

“We are going to have to make sure we minimize negative plays and be able to execute by throwing the ball down the field a little bit,” Gales said.

The Blue Tigers will get a little help at wide receiver with the debut of freshman Jermarri Watson (5-9, 160), who is making his collegiate debut after winning an eligibility hearing.

Watson adds another big-play threat to help senior Aderias Ealy (6-0, 178), who has led the room with 14 catches for 274 yards and two scores, while Lincoln waits for Winston Ausmer -- who is second on the team in receiving with 145 yards -- to return from injury.

“Jermarri Watson is going to be a solid football player,” Gales said. “He knows the offense, he’s an explosive kid out of Fort Lauderdale, he’ll come in and provide somebody that knows what they are doing at that position. I’m excited to see what his first game looks like.”

The Blue Tigers feel like they can hang with the Bearcats if they limit turnovers and explosive plays from Northwest Missouri.

“We are looking for minimizing turnovers, we can’t give the ball to the other team and expect to be successful,” Gales said, “eliminating big plays down the field, keeping everything in front of us and trying to rally to the football and mostly, we have to make some of those tackles we should’ve made (last week). If we do that, we’ll be in the hunt.”

Notes: Jefferson City graduate Will Berendzen is expected to be the starting long snapper for Northwest Missouri. … The Bearcats lead the all-time series 17-7-1 and have won four straight in the series, including 58-20 last season at Dwight T. Reed Stadium. The Blue Tigers last win in the series came Oct. 22, 1988, in an 18-17 decision. … Lincoln will be making its first trip to Maryville since Oct. 26, 2019, where it suffered a 56-9 loss.