Dec. 5, 2007
From Harness and Smith to Erspamer and Robertson
Bryan Boettcher - Director of Athletic Media Relations
Last season's Northwest Missouri State team featured perhaps the best defensive unit in program history. Some would argue it was one of the best Division II has ever seen.
So where does this year's unit rank?
The Bearcats returned five of 11 starters from a 2006 team that pitched three shutouts, allowed less than 12 points per game and didn't allow a running back to reach 100 yards. Four starters lost were All-Americans. A fifth earned honorable mention honors.
The strength of that unit was its linebackers, where senior All-Americans Ben Harness and Thomas Smith teamed with junior Jared Erspamer, this year's MIAA Most Valuable Defensive Player. Erspamer's flanked by senior Matt Robertson and junior Evan Wilmes this season.
Robertson spent his collegiate career at Iowa State before arriving in Maryville. He led the Cyclones in tackles in 2005 with 103. He's second to Erspamer this year with 93, four shy of Erspamer's tally of 97. The Bearcats haven't had a defensive player reach 100 tackles since 1999.
"It's great to be a league MVP, but it's hard to accept," said Erspamer. "Matt's stats are just as good as mine. He's played just as well as me and I wish he and some of my other teammates had received more recognition for awards than they did."
Eight Bearcats earned all-league honors in 2006 compared to five this season.
On the surface, Erspamer and Robertson appear as opposites: Erspamer is from Nebraska and Robertson hails from Florida. Erspamer has four years of experience with the MIAA and Division II, while Robertson is experiencing it for the first time. Erspamer likes to stop the run; Robertson likes to defend the pass.
That didn't stop the two from forming a bond right away.
"I knew Ers and I would click right away, because he's a competitor," said Robertson. "I remember in the summer, we'd team up for some relays and we dragged each other and beat everyone else and I realized this guys a competitor and I'm going to be friends with him."
Robertson says he feels as though he's played at Northwest for four years instead of one.
"When I arrived, everyone was interested to see what I could do," said Robertson. It took me a few games to get used to the tendencies, the defensive line and stuff like that. In this league, they run the ball more."
Robertson didn't have more than six tackles in his first four games as a Bearcat. He's had no fewer than six since and registered a season-best 13 stops in Northwest's overtime win against Pittsburg State. He got his first interception of the season last week against Chadron.
When Erspamer talks about his goals and his crowning achievements at the end of the season, inevitably the Chadron game will be mentioned. The Bearcats held Danny Woodhead to less than 100 yards rushing for the just the seventh time in his 44 games and he failed to score a touchdown.
Erspamer was the main reason why.
Chadron tried to run outside early in the game, but Erspamer ran him down. The Eagles tried to run between the tackles, but if the defensive line didn't get to him, Erspamer did. Four plays following Woodhead's 50-yard run, Chadron tried the same play again. Erspamer stopped him for a loss of two yards.
"The national championship games are obviously my best moments, but my personal favorite is getting revenge on (Woodhead) twice and ending his career," said Erspamer.
Woodhead was Nebraska's Player of the Year in high school the same year Erspamer was the runner-up.
The Bearcats have faced two 12-0 teams in the playoffs in West Texas A&M and Chadron. West Texas featured the nation's best passing attack; Chadron had one of the nation's best ground games. Northwest handled them both.
West Texas had averaged 43 points per game, but was held to 28. Chadron had averaged 40 points, but was held to 13.
Grand Valley State is Northwest's third consecutive 12-0 opponent and will certainly be the most balanced. The Lakers average 250 yards rushing and 225 through the air. Fortunately the team is without quarterback Cullen Finnerty, a senior last year who was the only player to rush for 100 yards against Northwest last season. His replacement is sophomore Brad Iciek, who has netted 145 rushing yards this season.
"If we stop the run and get pressure on the quarterback, I think we'll be alright," said Erspamer. "They have a young quarterback and if we can get into his face, I think we'll have some success."
Unlike the previous two games against Grand Valley, this one will be played at Bearcat Stadium, where Northwest has won 16 in a row. The Lakers have won 40 straight games, home, away or neutral, including 10 straight in the postseason.
"Our fans are great and they're going to go nuts," said Robertson. "Sleeping in your own bed and not having to travel that Friday is going to be an advantage to us, but we still have to bring our 'A' game."
Northwest has a third chance at Grand Valley and it's this year's defense with that shot. Harness and Thomas aren't forgotten, but the reigns have been handed to Erspamer and Robertson. Saturday, before a nationally-televised audience, fans will see how bright their two stars can shine.
For more information, please contact:
Phillip Dowden, Media Relations/Sports Information
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