Colorado Mines loses to Harding in Division II national title game

For the second year in a row, Mines’ national title hopes went up in smoke in McKinney, Texas.

Unable to stop the run, the Orediggers fell to Harding 38-7 on Saturday at McKinney ISD Stadium. It was Mines’ second rough loss in the championship game in as many years after getting blasted by Ferris State 41-14 on the same stage last December.

Mines scored on its opening possession but was shut out the rest of the way as the Bisons’ triple-option flexbone attack ran the ball at will. Harding, Division II’s top rushing team coming into the game, finished with 502 yards on the ground with a whopping 8.7 yards per carry while attempting just two passes.

“They were the problem more than anything (with their triple-option),” Mines coach Pete Sterbick told reporters. “Because of their offense, it’s such a unique offense where you have to change your rules defensively. Tackling is always at a premium with that type of offense. There were times we thought we had stops in the backfield (and didn’t).”

The Orediggers struck first when quarterback John Matocha rolled out and found tailback Noah Roper in the flat for a 2-yard TD pass to go up 7-0 less than six minutes in.

But that was all Mines fans would have to cheer about.

The Bison came back with a score on their opening drive as well, equaling Mines’ 75-yard drive with eight rushing plays capped off by Jhalen Spicer’s 10-yard TD. Harding’s ability to efficiently grind the ball down the field foretold what would happen the rest of the afternoon.

“Our defense has been fantastic all year, and to hold this kind of offense with that kind of elite quarterback to a touchdown was unbelievable,” Harding coach Paul Simmons told reporters. “We were zero flinching, and all composure (after Mines’ opening TD).”

After a Mines punt, another run-heavy Harding drive ate up 10:23 of clock and gave the Bison a 14-7 lead with 4:30 left in the half on Braden Jay’s 10-yard scoring scamper.

On Mines’ next drive, Landon Walker’s 52-yard run set the Orediggers up in the red zone. But four plays later, Walker was stuffed on fourth-and-1 to turn the ball back over to the Bison. The failed fourth-down conversion proved to be the game’s early turning point.

Harding then seized control with a six-play, 90-yard drive, all runs, capped by Jay’s 9-yard score to increase the tally to 21-7 late in the first half. Mines’ defense, which allowed only 64.4 rushing yards per game coming in and had held five opponents to 10 yards or fewer on the ground, was on its heels and in serious trouble.

“Once they get ahead, they force you into not a panic mode, but ‘We’ve got to score,’” Sterbick said. “I did feel like we could get some stops (to get back in the game), but it just didn’t go our way.”

The Orediggers drove into Bison territory on the final possession of the half, but Jacob Click missed a 49-yard field goal on the final play of the quarter. Harding then came out and punched Mines in the mouth to start the second half, with Jay ripping off a 73-yard TD run to put the Bison up 28-7.

Mines turned the ball over on downs again on its next possession when Matocha’s pass to Max McLeod fell incomplete on fourth-and-6 in Bison territory. From there, the rout was on. Harding notched a field goal and another rushing TD on its next two drives to pull away while the Orediggers offense didn’t produce big plays and their defense could never figure out Harding’s triple-option in front of the crowd of 12,552.

Even Simmons was surprised by his team’s total domination of Mines.

“I did not see this kind of game coming,” Simmons said.

Matocha’s storied Mines career ended unceremoniously on the Orediggers’ final drive when college football’s all-time TD leader and the 2022 Harlon Hill winner threw an interception on his last pass from the Harding 4-yard line.

Mines, a balanced offensive team all year, managed just 71 yards rushing to 270 yards passing. The RMAC champion Orediggers finished 14-1 while the Bison finished 15-0 en route to their first national title, and Harding tailback Blake Delacruz set a championship-game record with 212 yards rushing.

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