When the football game started, Haskell Indian Nations University had 32 able bodies in uniform. When it ended, the body count had slipped below 30.
Yet the Fightin' Indians never wavered in bowing to defending NAIA champion Northwestern Oklahoma State, 55-6, on Saturday afternoon at Haskell Stadium.
"I'm impressed how hard their kids played," Northwestern coach Garin Higgins said after the Rangers won their 27th straight. "They played four quarters. They never quit.
"And their running back. I was impressed with him."
That would be Brad Benham, a 5-foot-9, 185-pound freshman who carried 30 times for 99 yards and caught four Brandon Watson passes for another 24 yards.
"They were the No. 1 team in the country, and I wanted to show them what I had," said Benham, who hails from the Tulsa suburb of Collinsville. "They were a tough team, but we had nothing to lose."
Thanks in large part to Benham's yeoman work and a minimum of turnovers, the Fightin' Indians were able to prevent a potential embarrassment in their season finale.
"Our game plan was to keep their offense off the field," HINU coach Gary Tanner said, "and for the most part we did. We had two or three drives of six minutes or more."
Neither resulted in a touchdown. Scott Giroux climaxed one march with a 26-yard field goal on the last play of the first half. Then Giroux booted a 42-yarder to finish a drive that started when the Indians fooled the Rangers with an onside kick to start the second half.
Both those drives featured hard, if short, runs by Benham.
"He ran through a lot of tackles," Tanner said. "That boy has a lot of heart. He really worked hard."
So did Benham's defensive teammates who were slower than and outsized by the juggernaut from Alva, Okla.
"It was a great game even if the score didn't show it," said linebacker Stan Holder, one of two seniors who played his last game for the Indians.
Burgess Navarro, the other senior and also a linebacker, concurred.
"They're a tremendous team," Navarro said. "Our guys showed a lot of heart today. After the game, when I was shaking hands, one of their guys told me he respects us now."
Northwestern Oklahoma started quickly, scoring three touchdowns on its first five plays. But then Haskell's defense settled in and the Tribe's offense did a better job of taking time off the clock.
Afterward Tanner, who announced six weeks ago that his 14th season as the Indians' head coach would be his last, was battling his emotions.
"I couldn't talk to the team. It was too emotional," Tanner said. "It's kind of a sad time for me."
Tanner, who has high blood pressure, will remain the Indians' softball coach. HINU athletics director Jerry Tuckwin said the school would begin advertising the football position next week.
The Indians played most of the second half without leading receiver Sonny Duncan, who reinjured the knee that had kept him out the last two weeks, and fullbacks Cody Owen and Justin Blaylock who were also injured.
Haskell ended with a 2-8 record and a seven-game losing streak in its first full season as an NAIA school. Northwestern Oklahoma is 9-0.
Northwestern Oklahoma 55, Haskell 6
NW Oklahoma 21 7 13 14 55
Haskell 0 3 3 0 6
NWO Chris Choice 36 pass from Al Hunt (Danny Polmounter kick)
NWO Charles McBride 60 run (Polmounter kick)
NWO Choice 18 pass from Hunt (Polmounter kick)
NWO Hunt 47 run (Polmounter kick)
Haskell FG Scott Giroux 26
Haskell FG Giroux 42
NWO McBride 1 run (Keith Vermillion kick)
NWO McBride 17 run (kick failed)
NWO Brandon Stewart 14 run (Vermillion kick)
NWO Choice 96 interception return (Vermillion kick)