CEDAR FALLS -- Only one head football coach has faced East Mississippi and Iowa Western this season.
And after facing Iowa Western on Sunday, he had a definite opinion on the matter.
"That's the best team we've played, in my opinion,'' Northwest Mississippi coach Benjy Parker said of the Reivers. "East Mississippi's got a good football team. And Iowa Western does. But their depth is, I think, what separates them from some other schools.''
Third-rated Iowa Western wore down the No. 5 Rangers in the second half and scored an impressive 36-19 win in the featured game of the Graphic Edge Bowl at the UNI-Dome.
In what the NJCAA designated as its championship game, No. 1 East Mississippi edged No. 2 Arizona Western 31-28 Sunday in Perkinston, Mississippi.
As the Reivers posed for their celebratory photo 959 miles away, they started the inevitable chant: "We want East! We want East!''
Iowa Western finished with an identical 11-1 record as the Lions, but it never got a shot at them. The Reivers received the majority of the nine first-place votes in each of the final three regular-season polls, yet dropped from first to third in the second-to-last release and then stayed there in the final rankings.
After losing to the Rangers 61-38 on Oct. 12, East Mississippi won the rematch 67-66 in double overtime on Nov. 11 to claim the Mississippi state championship.
Though extremely disappointed to be dropped to third, Iowa Western regrouped and turned in a terrific performance on Sunday against a talented Ranger squad.
"Credit my staff. Credit these kids,'' Iowa Western coach Scott Strohmeier said. "People get nervous, like, 'Well, are they going to be happy to play in this game?' I think it showed today that our kids were happy to play one more game.''
Locksley completed 31 of 45 for 270 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. The 6-foot-4, 200-pound University of Texas transfer also rushed for 37 yards, including a 10-yard touchdown, to earn offensive MVP honors.
"The scoreboard speaks for itself,'' Locksley said. "We had one slip-up (a week-four, 21-19 loss at Butler), and since then, we've been doing what we always knew we were supposed to do. It's no surprise to us at all.''
Sargent exploded for 127 of his 144 rushing yards in the second half. The 5-11, 215-pound redshirt freshman finished with a single-season school-record 1,442 yards, breaking the previous record of 1,343 by Akise Teague.
Perry, a University of Tennessee transfer, caught 14 passes for 109 yards and a touchdown.
Northwest Mississippi pulled within 23-19 with 10:06 remaining in the game on Drake McCarter's 28-yard field goal.
But Iowa Western owned the rest of the game. The Reivers marched 63 yards in nine plays, with Sargent carrying four times for 25 yards and Locksley completing 3 of 3 for 25 yards, including a 3-yard touchdown strike to Mike Hill for a 29-19 lead with 6:47 remaining.
The Rangers were forced to go on fourth and 6 at their 43 with 5:02 showing, and Jack Abraham's deep pass fell incomplete.
On third and 10 at the Northwest 43, Locksley threw his best pass of the day, a 30-yard strike that Hill caught in full sprint along the right sideline, barely getting one foot down.
On the next play, Nick Singleton caught a short toss from Locksley and turned it into a 13-yard touchdown catch. Singleton, who had been severely shaken up earlier in the half, covered the final yard with second effort.
"I was just fighting,'' he said. "I tried to make a couple guys miss. One of my teammates helped me get in the end zone by dragging me. For me to get in the end zone after all that other stuff happened today? It felt great.''
Ky'el Hemby earned defensive MVP honors for the Reivers with five solo tackles and three assists, along with an interception and two pass breakups.
Iowa Western had only a 449-419 edge in total yards, but its defense made big plays at key times.
"Iowa Western, No. 1 team in the country,'' Hemby said. "We felt like we had something to prove for the rankings not going our way. This was our only way to prove to everybody in the country that we're No. 1.''
Northwest's Parker said the Reivers simply had more good football players.
"I think their depth certainly was the key,'' he said. "They just had a few more bullets than we did, and it showed in the second half. They were the best team tonight, and hat's off to them.''
Strohmeier felt depth might favor his club, so he preached patience.
"I told them, 'We don't have to score a touchdown every drive. It's through the course of four quarters. Just keep pounding and pounding and pounding. When you go into the third and fourth quarter, that's when you're going to see the results,''' he said.
With four-year coaches along with family members and friends of the Reivers scattered around the turf at game's end, Strohmeier said his players showed character in responding to things out of their control.
"This is a special group,'' he said. "I'll challenge our schedule against anybody in the country.
"They took this as a challenge. We had to prove to the junior college world that we're a pretty darn good football team.''
NW Mississippi (8-3) 10 0 6 3 -- 19
Iowa Western (11-1) 7 10 6 13 – 36
NW: FG Drake McCarter 36
NW: JaVonta Payton 11 pass from Jack Abraham (McCarter kick)
IW: FG Ogamba 28
IW: Vincent Perry 5 pass from Locksley (Ogamba kick)
NW: Pro Wells 14 pass from Abraham (kick failed)
IW: Locksley 10 run (kick failed)
NW: FG McCarter 28
IW: Mike Hill 3 pass from Locksley (kick blocked)
IW: Nick Singleton 13 pass from Locksley (Ogamba kick)
PASSING: NW, Jack Abraham 20-39-1, 209 yards, 2 TDs. IW, Kai Locksley 31-45-0, 270 yards, 4 TDs.
RECEIVING: NW, Demarcus Jones 5-63, Quarderman Sloan 2-45, Cole Rotenberry 6-42, Pro Wells 3-28, JaVonta Payton 2-16, Jerrick Orr 2-15. IW, Vincent Perry 14-109, Anthony Turner 5-55, Mike Hill 6-48, Nick Singleton 4-44, Joe Jordan 1-9, Mekhi Sargent 1-5.