College football season in Maryville, Missouri, comes with a certain degree of expectation. That’s just the reality of the sport here, one that is often unrealistic, bordering on ridiculous.
It is what it is. If you win a lot of football games, people will expect you to keep winning a lot of football games — something that Northwest football has done more than any other Division II team this decade.
The Bearcats are 107-16 since 2010. They’ve made the playoffs every year since 2003. They’ve won four national titles since 2000 and have only failed to make the postseason twice in that same stretch. They were selected first in the 2019 MIAA media preseason poll, and they came in ranked No. 6 among all DII programs in the 2019 American Football Association Poll.
The expectations for this team, it’s worth repeating, are perpetually elevating. So it’s easy — and maybe even fair — for fans and students to expect another national championship run after a two-year title game drought. Ahead of the Green and White scrimmage, Northwest is set to play Aug. 29, I’m here to tell you it’s entirely possible that the Bearcats could march to McKinney ISD Stadium this December and bring back the NCAA Division II National Championship Trophy.
But they have to get there first.
If Northwest’s offense plays like it did a season ago, the Bearcats won’t make it to McKinney. That sounds like a bizarre claim, and on the surface, it is. Northwest’s offense averaged 36.6 points per game last season, a number that tells the story of a robust offense. But a closer look reveals more.
Why it took Northwest the full 11-weeks to clinch a share of the MIAA title last season, why the team failed to host a playoff game, and ultimately, why it didn’t advance further in the postseason can be boiled down to three games, three numbers, three halves of football.
The Bearcats scored 3 points in the first half of a 31-21 loss to Central Oklahoma Sept. 22. Then, with an opportunity to clinch the MIAA outright, the Bearcats managed just 10 first-half points in an eventual 17-16 loss to Fort Hays State Nov. 3.
Finally, with the season on the line in the second round of the playoffs, the Bearcats scored just one touchdown in the first half against Ferris State Nov. 24, entering the break facing a 13-point deficit. They went on to lose by 6 points.
The goal here is not to paint the Bearcats as choke artists — they made noble comeback efforts that fell just short in all three of those games, particularly against Ferris State, with the stakes at their highest. But the reality is, Northwest’s offense has to be more consistent if the Bearcats want to be competing for a title in December. Joel Osborn, Northwest’s co-offensive coordinator and offensive play-caller, knows this as well as anyone.
Osborn has spent much of the offseason trying to remedy the problem posed, the plague that kept the Bearcats from reaching their full potential last season: how to get the offense going early before it’s too late.
He’s found there is no simple answer. The Bearcats need to establish a running game early, Osborn said. And he admitted they need a better gameplan, a task that falls on him.
“The first thing is having a better plan going into those games,” Osborn said. “I’ve thought a lot about it. The other thing, too, for us is just if we come out and we don’t start off great, is having the mental ability, the mental toughness to put that aside and move on to the next play.”
For Northwest, losses like the one to Central Oklahoma contain multitudes. When they happen, they feel like the end of the world when, of course, they aren’t. But they come with damaging implications that can unravel into something more.
Northwest’s Week 4 loss to the Bronchos last season in no way derailed its campaign — the Bearcats rattled off five wins in a row after falling asleep at the wheel in Edmond, Oklahoma, last September in that 10-point loss to the Bronchos. In some ways, the loss may have served as a spark for Northwest, but it also served as a hole to climb out of, installing an uphill climb to the No. 1 seed.
Northwest has won six national titles — more than any other team in Division II — but the Bearcats have never done so without home-field advantage for at least one round of the postseason. Among its 10 title game appearances, Osborn pointed out, Northwest has only opened the playoffs as a visiting team once, in 2005.
In short, the Bearcats need home-field advantage to be successful in the postseason. That’s why dropping throwaway games to teams like Central Oklahoma in September is inconsequential, yet paramount.
“The times (we’ve) had success in the playoffs, (we’re) typically the No. 1 seed and we get a bye,” Osborn said. “You use that bye to heal back up. It’s very rare for Northwest to go to the national championship game just playing on the road. … You’ve got to take care of business one week at a time during the season. Otherwise, bigger picture, it’s not going to matter.”
For Northwest, as with every team, the challenge at hand is to chart its way through the MIAA gantlet unscathed, carefully stepping its way toward what they hope is a postseason birth coupled with a first-round bye week.
The Bearcats will have to do so without Shawn Bane Jr. and Josh Caldwell, offensive playmakers who moved on to the NFL. They’ll have to do so without Jack Richards and Anthony Lane, too, both defensive anchor points who graduated last spring. But the news isn’t all bad.
Northwest still has one of the top-ranked defenses in the country. The Bearcats have Division I transfer Justin Rankin set to play alongside senior Isaiah Strayhorn at running back. They’ve got a bevy of offensive playmakers, including LaTroy Harper, Marqus Andrews and Imoni Donadelle, ready to shine following Bane’s graduation.
The Bearcats still have Braden Wright, last year’s MIAA Freshman of the Year playing quarterback, and they’ve got an offensive coordinator in Osborn who’s ready to implement Wright and company to their fullest potential. The Bearcats aren’t in bad shape, by any means.
The Green and White scrimmage Thursday is the start of an uphill battle for the Bearcats, one where history says they’ve got to be excellent every week, that they have got to secure a first-round bye if they want to bring home a title.
But history also says they’ll be just fine, or at least, that’s the expectation.