On the first play from scrimmage in the second half of Northwest football’s matchup with Northeastern State Nov. 2, senior running back Justin Rankin took a handoff in the backfield from sophomore quarterback Braden Wright and did what he did all game long, what he’s done all season.
Rankin took the handoff in stride and waltzed through a spacious hole in Northeastern’s defensive front, taking off for a 65-yard touchdown. On an inside handoff, the running back wasn’t touched.
The play gave Northwest a 56-0 lead and gave Rankin his third touchdown of the game. Neither figure would stand. Rankin would score four touchdowns on 12 carries for 211 yards, helping the Bearcats score a 79-0 win over the RiverHawks — the largest margin of victory in program history.
In the aftermath of the best performance of his collegiate career, Rankin, who transferred to Northwest from Division I Kent State before the start of this season, couldn’t stop reflecting credit to his teammates and coaching staff. He credited Rich Wright and Northwest’s coaches for pushing him throughout the last week of practice and, of course, he credited the team’s offensive line.
“The o-line came out, they told me, ‘I got you,’ I said, ‘I got y’all,’” Rankin said. “And that was that. … You could drive a bus through there. Like, there was nobody around. They did a great job.”
For Northwest, the offense’s start on the afternoon was nearly as quick as Rankin’s. After quickly forcing a Northeastern three-and-out, the Bearcats started rolling on their 4th play from scrimmage by way of a familiar connection. Braden Wright found senior tight end Marqus Andrews for a 43-yard touchdown pass that, coupled with an extra point from the right leg of junior kicker Parker Sampson, gifted Northwest a 7-0 lead.
From there, Northwest didn’t look back. Through the efforts of Braden Wright, Rankin and junior running back Isaiah Strayhorn, the offense continued to build. Rankin and Andrews each found the end zone twice in the first half. Strayhorn did once. Northwest’s defense supplemented the scoring onslaught with two defensive touchdowns.
“I wanted to come out and I wanted to play well,” Rich Wright said. “The thing that I talked to the guys about during the week is that, if you guys go back a week, we (were) playing 7-7 against Lincoln (Oct. 26), and then all of a sudden the second quarter hits. And when you see all three phrases starting to blend and play well together, it becomes 35-7 at half. And that’s what I wanted to see at the start of the football game (today) and we accomplished that.”
Northwest’s defense added a pair of touchdowns to Northwest’s gaudy total on the scoreboard, one of which came on a Jake Gassman 52-yard pick-six, and the other, on a Mike Ehlke 18-yard fumble recovery returned for a touchdown.
For Ehlke, a senior defensive end, the touchdown was the first of his career.
“It was pretty freaking sweet,” Ehlke said. “I wasn’t gonna stop until I got there.”
Ehlke was called for an illegal celebration in the aftermath of his first-quarter. Northwest’s sideline cheered upon the referee’s announcement of the penalty. Rich Wright reacted differently.
“I got chewed out,” Ehlke said.
“My first comment was, I was literally going to say, you know, ‘Act like you’ve been there before,” Rich Wright said. “But I knew what the retort was gonna be: ‘Coach, I’ve never been there before.’”
The Bearcats’ offensive assault and defensive assistance helped the Bearcats to a 49-0 halftime lead, one that would immediately grow on Rankin’s 65-yard run to open the second half. On Northwest’s second drive of the second half, Rankin found the endzone for the fourth time on a 30-yard run.
From there, the scoring pace slowed slightly for Northwest but remained steady. The team forced a safety late in the third quarter. Redshirt freshman running back Robert Rawie came away with Northwest’s last two scores, breaking out with a 32-yard and 26-yard touchdown in the latter part of the game.
The result, of course, was a scoreboard that read 79-0, a figure that remained until the final whistle of the afternoon. The intent, Rich Wright said, was never to run up the score. The coach was on the wrong side of lopsided affairs in the early years of his career. The Bearcats didn’t score the largest win in school history on purpose, he said, it was a product of execution.
“I mean, how do you tell kids that work hard all week in practice to have an opportunity to not try and perform?” Rich Wright said. “You can’t do that. So, you just — it is what it is. But I do have some compassion for the guys in the other locker room because that’s not fun to go through.”
The margin of victory was, in some ways, a product of second-and-third-stringers making the most of an opportunity. The result was Northwest’s eighth win of the season, one that comes ahead of the toughest portion of its schedule, which is why the win, in Rich Wright’s eyes, is mostly meaningless.
Rankin had a dominant day that bordered on ridiculous. Ehlke and Rawie each scored the first touchdowns of their careers. Braden Wright was quietly excellent, throwing for two scores on 12-of-15 passing. The defense held the RiverHawks to 26 rushing yards. And none of that really matters if Northwest fails to continue its winning ways against Fort Hays, a team that’s beat the Bearcats two years in a row, next week.
“It was a good win. I was pleased with the fact that we played well all week,” Rich Wright said. “But we’ve got to show up Saturday in Hays, Kansas, and we’ve got a job to do. So that’s what it boils down to. (We) have to have a great week of practice and preparation, can’t leave any stones unturned. We’ve got to get ready to go get in a fistfight.”