WARRENSBURG — Central Missouri football found its usual rhythm quick against Henderson State in the NCAA Division II Super Region 3 quarterfinal round.
Before long, things got out of hand as the Mules scored on seven of their nine possessions in the first half, rolling to a 56-14 win over the Reddies on Saturday, Nov. 18, at Walton Stadium.
“Once [we get our first down], I think 12 [Zach Zebrowski] gets into a rhythm,” Central Missouri head coach Josh Lamberson said. “The rest of our offense does, too. They’re able to kind of feel the tempo of the game. We didn’t know. We were excited to play another team from another conference … Our guys were excited to feel that. I think once they got in tempo and got in rhythm, it kind of got to the pace of the football game.”
Facing 3rd-and-2 on the game’s opening drive, Central Missouri (11-1) aired it out for a 49-yard gain between Zebrowski and redshirt sophomore wide receiver Michael Fitzgerald II.
The play was followed by a 19-yard pass to Fitzgerald, setting up an opportunity for sophomore running back Marcellous Hawkins to push his way into the end zone from a yard out.
It was the first of two touchdowns Hawkins had in the first five minutes, the second arriving in the form of a 19-yard reception from Zebrowski.
Add a 39-yard touchdown connection between Zebrowski and redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jack Pospisil, a 73-yard touchdown between Zebrowski and redshirt sophomore tight end Bo Reeves, and another 8-yard TD reception by Pospisil, and UCM led 35-0 by the end of the first quarter.
“That offense is something special,” Henderson State head coach Scott Maxfield said. “They do a good job with it. It was just a tough matchup for us. We came out really slow. We played a little bit timid early. They exposed some of the weaknesses of our team. Really, the strength of our defense is run defense. We were challenged today in an area we had really been challenged in leading up to this game. They did a phenomenal job.”
Both Reddies touchdowns arrived in the second quarter. Otherwise, Central Missouri forced five punts and two turnovers on fourth-down stops to go along with interceptions by redshirt senior defensive back Wyryor Noil and redshirt junior linebacker Grant Hormann, along with a fumble recovery from redshirt defensive back Kameron Yancey.
The Mules led 49-14 at halftime.
Henderson State (9-3) was the fourth team UCM has shut out in the second half this year, joining a list that already included Emporia State, Central Oklahoma and Fort Hays State.
“Our DC [Greg Jones] holds us to a high standard,” Central Missouri redshirt junior defensive back Curtis Appleton II said. “Even looking at what they did during the game, there’s some plays that we feel like we need to get corrected. Obviously the goal would be to pitch shutouts. It’s football. People are going to make plays. We’ll make mistakes. But we believe that when we do our stuff we control a lot of what can happen. In return, that leads to turnovers and making stops.”
Central Missouri finished the game with 599 yards of offense, 381 arriving in the first half. Zebrowski completed 24-of-34 passes for 367 yards and seven touchdowns while running for a net of 36 yards, including a gain of 41, on five carries.
Fitzgerald led the Mules in receiving yards, hauling in 121 yards and a score on four receptions. Pospisil was next in line with 69 yards and three touchdowns on four catches.
Nine Mules tallied at least a catch. With Hawkins on the sideline nursing an injury through most of the game, redshirt running back Weston Bridges spearheaded the ground attack with 59 yards on 10 carries.
“You can’t change too much on defense when you’re going at our tempo,” Zebrowski said. “We got to kind of play base. I think we got a good idea of what they were running. We had guys that we were going to get open. I just had to get it to them. We have guys that were really freaky on the outside. I think just getting the ball to them and letting them make plays, and our o-line obviously does a good job in our run game and pass pro.”
Saturday’s win advances the Mules on to a trip to Searcy, Arkansas, to meet top-seeded Harding in the Super Region 3 semifinals on Nov. 25.
It is the third time UCM has advanced out of the first round in a handful of tries. They last made it as far in 2019.
“On the national platform, we just talked about just letting everybody know who they are , what they do and how they do it,” Lamberson said. “Our guys, again on a Saturday afternoon, in the national playoffs, showed up and let everybody see kind of what the Mules are all about.”
A last ditch effort from Ferris State fell short in its 21-14 loss to No. 2 seeded Grand Valley State in Allendale Michigan.
After scoring to make it a one-possession game with 18 seconds left , the Bulldogs (8-3) successfully completed an onside kick.
With no timeouts, Ferris took possession of the ball at its own 39. It advanced the ball to the 50 before sophomore quarterback Carson Gulker was sacked for a loss of 13 yards with 16 seconds left.
Ferris was unable to get a play off, ending its quest of a third-consecutive national title.
There was a combined 532 yards of offense.
Grand Valley (10-1) senior quarterback Cade Peterson completed 12-of-26 passes for 184 yards. His total included a 29-yard touchdown to junior wide receiver Darrell Johnson and a 72-yard touchdown to junior wide receiver Cody Tierney.
The Lakers also scored through a 14-yard touchdown from senior running back Tariq Reid.
Senior quarterback Mylik Mitchell anchored Ferris in the air, completing 16-of-28 passes for 148 yards and a touchdown. Gulker completed 6-of-11 passes for 34 yards and a touchdown.
Gulker hit Xavier Wade to bring it within one touchdown with 18 seconds left.
Mitchell found junior wide receiver Tyrese Hunt Thompson for a 7-yard score in the second quarter.
No. 3 seeded Pittsburg State’s defense limited Indianapolis to 371 yards while forcing three turnovers in a 35-14 win in Pittsburg, Kansas.
The Gorillas (11-1) also forced a safety through redshirt junior linebacker Luke Jennings, initially taking a 2-0 lead with 5:24 remaining in the first quarter.
Pitt led 15-7 at halftime. Junior quarterback Chad Dodson Jr. completed 20-of-28 passes for 282 yards and three touchdowns.
The score list included a 12-yard completion to redshirt junior wide receiver Jack Roberts, a 38-yard touchdown to junior tight end Dallas Bond and a 35-yard pass to redshirt sophomore wide receiver Kolbe Katsis. Pitt also scored through a 37-yard field goal from freshman kicker Austin Schmitt and a 26-yard touchdown run from senior running back Antwan Squire.
UIndy (9-2) quarterback Gavin Sukup completed 20-of-28 passes for 181 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked four times. Sukup also had a rushing score in the game, running for a net of 36 yards on 14 carries.
Pittsburg State will travel to Grand Valley State in the second round of the playoffs on Nov. 25.
Joe Andrews can be reached at 660-747-8123.