Quarterback Trevor Adams threw for two touchdowns, James Franklin ran for two more and the defense stepped up with a succession of big second-half plays as the Bearcats defeated Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association rival Pittsburg State 31-21 in their annual Fall Classic in Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium.

“Our program’s had a lot of big wins . . . and this certainly is a big one,” coach Adam Dorrel said after his team preserved both its league title hopes and run at a ninth consecutive Division II playoff berth. Now 6-1 overall and 5-1 in the rugged MIAA, Northwest might not have been able to afford another loss on either front.

The showdown against Pitt State kicked off a five-game closing stretch that’s the most challenging in college football – not only in D-II but across every one of the NCAA’s four competitive classifications, based on the records of their remaining opponents. Immediately ahead is a trip Saturday to Missouri Southern, 5-2 and an upset winner over Missouri Western earlier Saturday.

Against Pitt State (5-1), they struggled first with the weather – persistent rain and two lightning delays, the second stopping play for 30 minutes early in the game – and then for a little more than a half with both the Gorillas’ defense and pass-minded offense. They trailed 7-0 at the half, then 14-0 when PSU’s Anthony Abenoja hit Luke Rampy with a 14-yard TD pass on the opening series of the second half.

“We knew we had to respond quick,” Adams said.

The 6-1 junior did just that, completing the first nine passes he threw in the third quarter. The first five produced Northwest’s first score, a 19-yard touchdown toss to Jordan Simmons that cut the deficit to 14-7. The next offensive series set up a 31-yard field goal by Todd Adolf.

It was the start of a game-turning run of 31 answered points by the Bearcats.

The Gorillas moved to the Northwest 17-yard line in the opening moments of the fourth quarter. There, on fourth-on-1, Beck opted against a field goal and ran 6-3, 238-pound Mandell Dixon into the middle of Bearcats’ line. He was met and stopped for no gain by linebacker Matt Massey and nose guard Travis Chappelear.

Travis Manning picked off a pass and returned it 14 yards to the Pitt State 35, and Adams and the offense capitalized. On a gutsy fourth-and-4 call, receiver John Hinchey beat one PSU defender on an inside slant and Adams hit him perfect. Hinchey leapfrogged another defensive back en route to a 29-yard touchdown that put Northwest up 17-14.

The Gorillas’ next possession ended on a sack by Northwest linebacker Eric Reimer. Franklin followed with the first of his TD runs, this one three yards around left end, to make it 24-14 with 5:06 remaining.

Safety Nate DeJong came up with another interception, and Franklin added a clinching 14-yard scoring run just 21 seconds later.

Franklin finished with 115 yards rushing on 20 carries. Adams threw for a total of 192 yards, completing 17 of 30 passes and overcoming a couple of first-half interceptions.