HAYS, Kan. — Standing in the locker room before the Bearcats took the field, Rich Wright didn’t have an everlasting pregame speech for his team.
Northwest football’s fifth-year coach didn’t tell his team to run up the score on Fort Hays. He didn’t his players to pitch a shutout — although the defensive-minded coach would’ve loved nothing more.
Instead, Wright told the players who knelt before him one thing to remember throughout the game they were getting ready to play:
“It doesn’t have to be pretty. It doesn’t have to be sexy,” Wright said. “We just need to figure out a way to get this done together.”
It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t sexy. It was everything Wright wanted, though, as No. 4 Northwest defeated MIAA foe Fort Hays 15-7 Thursday evening at Lewis Field Stadium.
The Bearcats (1-0) didn’t start the first drive of the season how they would’ve liked, as the offense stalled near midfield before sophomore Mike Hohensee — Northwest’s first-string punter and backup quarterback — punted a ball that was downed on the Tigers’ 1-yard line.
The ensuing play set the tone for Northwest's defense for the rest of the game, as senior linebacker Sam Phillips brought down Hays junior running back Keylan Chapman in the end zone for a safety to give the Bearcats a 2-0 lead.
“We pride ourselves on great defense, particularly against the run,” Wright said in the aftermath of the 8-point victory. “I thought it was a pretty cool way to start the football game off.”
“That’s something we stress as a football team: We’re going to stop the run and make teams one-dimensional,” Phillips said. “That kind of made them a little predictable, and we knew what they were going to do.”
Hays (0-1) ran the ball a mere 19 times, with the leading rusher — senior Tristan Tucker — having a team-high eight carries for 32 yards. Tigers junior quarterback Chance Fuller was 16-of-41 (39%) for 265 yards passing and a touchdown. The Tigers passed the ball more than twice as much as they ran it.
Northwest’s defense was successful in making the Tigers one-dimensional, but it shed light on the things that the Bearcats’ secondary needed to work on.
Senior defensive back J’Ravien Anderson intercepted one of Fuller’s passes on a first-and-10 from the Tigers’ 34-yard line with 12 minutes and 11 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Anderson was one of two bright spots in the Bearcats’ defensive backfield. It wasn’t until that moment, though, that someone in Northwest’s secondary shined.
Prior to Anderson’s interception, Fuller was able to find success in the air, scoring the Tigers’ only touchdown of the night on a 36-yard connection to sophomore Adrian Soto with five minutes to go in the third quarter.
That score was set up from the play that occurred two before that one — a long reception from Hays wideout Monterio Burchfield that ended with a 15-yard face mask penalty from Anderson.
Fuller had been picking on Northwest’s No. 1 defensive back all game, starting when he targeted the receiver Anderson was covering for two consecutive plays in the first quarter.
“I like the challenge,” Anderson said. “After the play, he came up to me and said, ‘We’re going at you all game.’ I said, ‘I love that. That’s what I want.’”
Freshman Josh Turner was the Bearcats’ other bright spot in the secondary, but he was never supposed to be.
After an injury kept starting cornerback Cahleel Smith on the sideline for most of the second half, Turner was tasked with helping slow down the Tigers’ aerial attack. His first attempt at doing so wasn’t too successful, warranting a penalty for pass interference roughly halfway through the fourth quarter.
Turner was accountable for two pass breakups while Hays was trying to orchestrate a game-tying drive with less than a minute left in the game. Both passes that Turner broke up would’ve put the Tigers in the red zone.
“He’s a dog,” Anderson said. “Since he came here he’s been a dog. He wants a starting position, and he showed it tonight.”
“You’re going to live and die with freshmen,” Wright said amid reflecting on Turner’s late-game heroics. “He’s a talented kid. He’s uber competitive.”
The lead that Turner was protecting, the same one Hays was trying to erase, was mostly built by Northwest running backs Al McKeller and Davonte’ Green.
McKeller, a senior who transferred from UIndy, tallied 161 yards rushing and a touchdown on 28 carries. Green, a junior who transferred from College of the Sequoias, added 53 yards rushing on 11 carries.
It was McKeller, though, who served as the Bearcats’ workhorse, finding the end zone for the program’s first touchdown of the 2021 season on a 4-yard rush halfway through the second quarter.
“He punishes people when he runs the football,” Wright said. “He’s a hammer.”
The way that the Tigers adjusted to McKeller, Wright said, set up Northwest junior quarterback Braden Wright’s 8-yard touchdown pass to senior wideout Kaden Davis with 1:04 left in the fourth quarter to give the Bearcats the 15-7 lead they eventually clung to.
He had perhaps his most important play of the game earlier that drive, when he broke off for an 18-yard rush on a third-and-4 from the Tigers’ 29.
“It was just something I had to do,” McKeller said of the moment. “I told (offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy) on the sideline to run that certain play, and I’d get it no matter what. He did it, so I had to own up to my word, honestly, and make whatever happened happen.”
Rich Wright wasn’t expecting his team to function as a well-oiled machine. He understands that the Bearcats haven’t played a game since the program’s loss to Ferris State in the NCAA Division II Quarterfinals Dec. 7, 2019.
That’s why he didn’t give an everlasting speech in the locker room before they ever stepped onto the field, because he didn’t expect them to be perfect — he just expected them to win.
And now, headed for a matchup with Lincoln (0-1) Sept. 9 in Bearcat Stadium, Rich Wright wants the ’Cats to take the next step on their journey to perfection.
“One of the things I always preach is that good teams make the biggest jump between Week 1 and Week 2,” Rich Wright said. “You get that first taste. So, we’re going to focus on us all week and expect to come out and have a great performance at home next Thursday night.”