Make no mistake about the fact that No. 4 ranked Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College is out to win the inaugural Midwest Classic Bowl presented by Downstream Resort.
But, second-year head coach Clay Patterson views the post-season contest which pits his fourth-ranked Golden Norse against No. 7 Independence (Kansas) Community College as an opportunity for 30 sophomores to showcase their talents on the banks of Tar Creek.
“I think this game is a summation of a two-year process for our sophomores,” Patterson said. “We want them to go out the right way because of what they’ve meant to this program.
“This is really going to be a ‘party on the banks’ for them,” Patterson said. “They want to go out as one of the best classes of sophomores that have been at NEO in the past 20 years.”
Kickoff is at 2 p.m., but gates will open at noon.
“We want this to be a celebration of our sophomores,” Patterson said. “They have returned the Golden Norsemen to the national prominence they enjoyed in the past.”
Tickets are available through the Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau and at the gate for $10 for adults and $6 for children ages 4 through 12. Tickets will also be sold beginning at noon at the southwest gate at Red Robertson Field.
The game will be streamed live over wardogsports.com.
NEO is the Southwest Junior College Football Conference regular season title with a 6-2 record.
After the Golden Norse defeated Blinn College, 38-34, in the conference semifinals in Miami, NEO beat Trinity Valley, 26-10, in Athens, Texas for their fifth overall title (1998, 2002, 2003, 2012 and 2017).
Patterson earned the conference coach of the year award, joining his uncle, NEO athletic director Dale Patterson who won the honor in 1998, 2002 and 2003.
Second year head coach Jason Brown has a similar situation with the Independence Pirates. Twenty three sophomores will be in uniform for the Pirates during the bowl game.
After bottoming out with an 0-7 record in the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference and an 0-10 overall mark in 2014, the Pirate football program has been on a steady rise.
Winners of three KJCCC championships (2017, 1987 and 1977), Independence defeated Coffeyville, Kansas, 27-22, on Nov. 11 to earn the league title. The Pirates finished 6-1 in the conference and 8-2 overall.
“Independence has the most athletic defense we’ve seen all year,” Patterson said. “Coach Brown said they have 34 FBS-caliber football players that are expected to sign on their team, but they can only play 11 at a time.
“They are a very athletic and fast football team,” Patterson said “If they have all 11 FBS players on defense at one time it will be a challenge for us to get out there and get after them.”
Ranked No. 2 in the nation by averaging 525.5 total yards per game, the high octane Golden Norse offense averages 36.7 points per game.
“We want to get back to running the football effectively,” Patterson said. “The last two games in the playoffs, we’ve had to rely more on our passing game than I would like as offensive coordinator.
“At lot of that was because both teams were loading the box against us and it was a lot more difficult to run the football,” Patterson said. “But with Darwin (Thompson) back healthy, we think we can get our running game going again.”
Veterans Wyatt Steigerwald starts under center at quarterback for the Norsemen while SWJCFC offensive player of the year, Thompson is at running back.
Steigerwald (6-1, 200 from Nowata) has completed 183 of 287 passes for 2,475 yards and 31 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. He has rushed for 153 yards on 74 carries and two TDs.
“Fans should not be surprised if they see us use all three quarterbacks (Cordale Grundy and Nyc Burns) throughout the course of the game,” Patterson said. “We’ve talked about it all year, that we haven’t offensively put together a total game all year to our satisfaction.”
Thompson (5-9, 195, Jenks) has gained 1,291 yards on 168 carries with six touchdowns. He also has 10 receptions for 78 yards and one TD.
Proving depth in the NEO backfield are freshman Darran Williams and sophomore Cortez Watson.
Williams (6-1, 185 from Edmond) has gained 695 yards on 105 carries and three touchdowns. He has two catches for 34 yards.
Watson (5-9, 190 from Woodridge, Virginia) averages 8.6 yards per touch with 351 yards on 41 attempts and five TDs.
“We’re just looking to get our offense running on all cylinders and put our best performance out there,” Patterson said. “Offensively, we plan on playing a lot of guys at quarterback, running back, receivers, linemen and whatever we have left at tight end.”
Nine of the top 10 NEO receivers are sophomores, led by Kobe Bryer, KJ Wells, Antwan Woods and tight end Jace Sternberger.
Bryer (5-9, 175 from Del City) leads the Norse with 57 receptions for 630 yards and five touchdowns.
Wells (6-3, 195 from Idabel) has made 32 catches for 478 yards and five TDs.
Woods (6-3, 180 from Jenks) has produced 24 receptions for 437 total yards and three scores.
Sternberger (6-4, 240 from Kingfisher) leads the team with six TDs on 17 receptions for 263 yards.
“The biggest thing for our offense will be to generate some big plays,” Patterson said. “We’ve been consistent all year moving the football which has defined our offense. We don’t want to talk away thinking we’ve left points out on the field.”
While the offense might grab headlines for new records set, the Golden Norsemen defense has evolved into a steady, cohesive unit.
NEO is allowing an average of 333.9 total yards per game and 22.3 points per contest.
“Our defense is clicking at the right time of the year after two superb playoff games,” Patterson said. “Because the Independence offense has some big-play potential at both quarterback and receiver positions, we need to eliminate the big plays.”
On the offensive side, the Pirates have an ACC transfer at quarterback (redshirt sophomore Malik Henry, 6-4, 185, who had been at Florida State as a freshman) and at running back (redshirt freshman Rakeem Boyd, 6-0, 200 from Strafford University).
“They also have a wide receiver that’s committed to Washington State,” Patterson said. “They’ve got talented dudes everywhere, but at times it comes down to execution and discipline because football’s a tough sport.”
Sophomore linebackers Dillon Hall, Lamontre Huval and Joe Williams led the Golden Norse defensive unit.
Hall (6-1, 210 from Edmond) leads the group from the middle with 32 unassisted tackles and 53 assists.
Huval (6-3, 215 from Beaux Bridge, Louisiana) has recorded 36 solo tackles and 37 assists. He leads the team with six pass deflections and one interception.
Williams (6-3, 205 also from Beaux Bridge, Louisiana) has made 40 unassisted tackles and 20 assists from the outside linebacker spot.
Ironically, the Pirates have a Beaux Bridge product, redshirt freshman linebacker Kirland Joseph.
Their 65-man numerical roster features only four players from the state of Kansas.
Sophomore defensive tackle Isaiah Johnson (6-4, 264 from Warner Robbins, Georgia) leads the front line with 12 solo tackles and 36 assists. He has made three quarterback sacks for minus-21 yards.
Veteran cornerback Aliik Sezer (6-1, 185 from Edmond) ranks second on the team with 38 unassisted tackles and 36 assists. He had made one interception with three pass deflections.
During the 97-year history of the Golden Norse football program, NEO has appeared in 17 different post-season bowl games and 31 all together.
The Norsemen have compiled a 16-14-1 mark in post-season action. Nine of the 17 junior college classics have been discontinued.