In the aftermath of Northwest football’s 45-23 win over Central Missouri Nov. 16, coach Rich Wright clutched the MIAA Championship trophy for the second time in two years. He gave an impassioned speech to his huddled group of players at the center of Mel Tjeerdsma Field. He hugged his wife and kids and shook the hand of dozens of colleagues and fans.
Then, joined by some of the game’s top performers — by a player he’s coached for less than 12 months in transfer running back Justin Rankin and by a player he’s coached for more than four years in senior defensive lineman Spencer Phllips — a misty-eyed Rich Wright faced a group of reporters in the basement of Bearcat Arena.
In the wake of Northwest’s title-clinching win over the previously-undefeated Mules (10-1), Rich Wright, unprompted, talked about the past.
The coach reflected back to early in his tenure at Northwest, where he started in 2004 as a defensive line coach, when Washburn was the Bearcats’ chief rival in the MIAA. Then to the turn of the decade, when it was Missouri Western. Then to the mid 2010s, when it was Pittsburg State. Then to the last few years, when it was Fort Hays. Then to now, where Central Missouri sprinted to a 10-0 record and grabbed a share of the conference title before it ever had to face Northwest.
Each year, two teams would square off with heavy conference implications, striving for an MIAA trophy and a spot in the NCAA Division II playoffs.
“There is one common denominator in all that,” Rich Wright said. “And it’s Northwest Missouri State.”
Northwest has been relevant in the race for the MIAA title every year since Rich Wright arrived. The Bearcats haven’t missed the postseason since he got the Maryville in 2004. The win over Central Missouri, one that came in dominating fashion, assured the Bearcats their 16th consecutive postseason bid and opened the door for a potential playoff contest at Bearcat Stadium Nov. 23.
For Northwest (10-1), the win came in convincing fashion. Squaring off against the highest-scoring offense in the country, the Bearcats’ defense, a unit that’s been inconsistent at times this season, made a statement on the first play from scrimmage. Central’s senior quarterback Brook Bolles’ first pass of the contest was intercepted by sophomore defensive back Trey Washington.
The play gave way to Northwest’s opening score and gave insight into how Bolles would spend much of his afternoon in Maryville. The quarterback threw four interceptions, including a pick six. He was sacked eight times.
In the week leading up to the contest, much of the game’s attention revolved around Bolles — who’s pair of older brothers quarterbacked Northwest to seperate national titles — and what he and the Mules might do to Northwest’s depleted secondary. The hype surrounding the quarterback and the disbelief in the Bearcats’ defense served as bulletin board material for Rich Wright.
“That was a lot of motivation all week long,” Rich Wright said. “One of the things that we’ve kind of hung our hat on here for several years now is that we’re a good defensive football team. I knew if I poked hard enough, (the defense) would come out swinging. And trust me, I poked all week.”
On the heels of Washington’s first quarter interception, Northwest kicked off a scoring parade that at times stalled but never really ceased through four quarters. Rankin, a senior, found the endzone on a 7-yard run less than two minutes into the game.
The running back finished the contest with two touchdowns and 64 rushing yards, rushing his way to the first real trophy of his college career. Rankin spent the last three years at Kent State. He never won a conference title in Division I’s Mid-Amercican Conference, where he had offers from all 12 programs.
Following the Central matchup, Rankin said he transferred to Northwest to play in games like that one.
“It’s really nice,” Rankin said. “Coach (Rich Wright) been bugging me about it since I got here: ‘It’s gonna be your first one.’ It feels amazing, honestly.”
Northwest’s offensive onslaught continued, quarterbacked by Braden Wright. The sophomore scored the Bearcats’ second touchdown of the day on a 5-yard keeper less than five minutes into the contest. The Bearcats, who had found themselves trailing early in six of their previous 10 matchups, led the No. 2-ranked team in the NCAA’s Super Region 3 by two scores.
The Mules responded with a nine-play, 58-yard field goal drive before Rankin followed up with his second rushing touchdown of the game, one that came early in the matchup’s second quarter.
From there, the two teams continued their game of back-and-forth. Central’s Koby Wilkerson rushed for a 2-yard touchdown, bringing the score to 21-10 and bringing the Mules to within two scores of the matchup. Northwest responded with what was perhaps the most unconventional score of the game.
In the midst of the second quarter, Phillips, a fifth-year player out of Tabor, Iowa, forced a fumble from the hands of Bolles. Junior linebacker Brody Buck scooped the loose ball and carried it 15 yards towards the end zone before he was swarmed by a barren of Mules. With Mules surrounding him, Buck pushed the ball into the hands of Washington, who ran 26 yards further to the end zone untouched, putting Northwest up 28-10 and putting an accent mark on his own impressive first half.
“I don’t know if I ripped it out of his hands,” Washington said, laughing. “I’d say he handed it to me, yeah. I saw there was Brody with the ball and there was three o-lineman tackling him. And in my mind, I’m not gonna win against three o-lineman. So, I went up there to kind of help him, see what he was gonna do with it, and thank God he gave me the ball.”
The Mules fired back with a late-half drive that kept them in the game and kept their hopes of an out-right conference title alive. Bolles found wideout Shae Wyatt for a 21-yard score, capping off a 63-yard drive. The touchdown brought the score to 28-17, where it would remain through the final 1:22 of the first half and through the entirety of the third quarter.
Both offenses stalled throughout the third. Northwest spent much of it grappling with turnovers and a fleeting passing offense, one that carried the team to its hot start. Central Missouri spent much of the second half dealing with the ramifications of Northwest’s defensive front.
In some ways, Bolles spent much of his afternoon dodging defenders in a collapsing pocket. In other ways, the quarterback never really escaped.
Facing the group of reporters in the postgame press conference, Phillips tried to count out how many sacks the defense recorded from memory. He incorrectly settled on 9. He recalled two from junior lineman Sam Roberts, two from senior lineman Zach Pierce, one from senior defensive end Mike Ehlke, two and a half from sophomore defensive tackle. Zach Howard and two from himself.
He overcredited the group’s effort by one sack. Rankin couldn’t blame him.
“How many times did we sack him?” Rich Wright asked as he glanced at the stat sheet. “It was a lot.”
“Too many times,” Rankin said.
Northwest reignited its scoring craze early in the fourth quarter by way of a field goal via the right foot of Parker Sampson. Less than 10 seconds later, Bolles, continually harassed by Northwest’s defense, threw an interception to junior linebacker Jackson Barnes, who returned the pass 29 yards for a touchdown.
The play gave Northwest a 38-17 lead. It gave the team all the points it would need to move past Central and claim its 30th MIAA title. It gave Barnes his first career touchdown. And it still gave way to more scoring.
“One of the things that, privately, you always are concerned about when you come off an emotional game like we did the week before in Hays is just how we were gonna respond,” Rich Wright said. “I got my answer.”
Central bounced back quickly with a 2-play, 75-yard scoring drive, highlighted by a 61-yard touchdown pass from Bolles to junior wideout Cameron Saunders. Northwest got the ball back with 5:42 left on the clock and the game well in-hand.
The Bearcats intended to milk the clock. They rushed on five of the drive’s six plays. On the drive’s sixth play, sophomore quarterback Braden Wright took off for a designed quarterback run, one that took him 49 yards to the end zone. The quarterback’s crossing of the goal line, which pushed the score to a 45-23, signaled the official end of Central’s chances and the Mules’ 10-game win streak.
“It’s huge,” Phillips said. “This is what college football is about. It’s about playing in big games, having success. And now it’s gonna be the start of our second season. I’m so excited. I’m so pumped to play with this group of guys. I don’t feel like we’ve meshed like we’re meshing now since we won it in 2016.”
The win over Central secured the most regular-season wins Northwest has earned under the Rich Wright, its third-year head coach. It secured the team another postseason berth and another conference title. It might’ve secured the first playoff game at Bearcat Stadium since 2016.
The Bearcats are playing a game next week. They won’t know the game’s location or opponent until the NCAA announces its postseason particulars Nov. 17. Rich Wright said he thinks they’ll play at home, but it’s up to the selection committee.
“For me, the win today was about taking the next step,” Rich Wright said. “We’ve finished two years in a row with two losses. And I just felt like it was that next step for our football program to get towards where we ultimately want to go. I felt like we grew today.”
The Bearcats spent 11 weeks fighting for the opportunity to play in Week 12. After beating the undefeated Mules, they will.