TOPEKA, Kan. — With 17 seconds left on the scoreboard at Yager Stadium, Mike Hohensee took the snap in shotgun formation.
Northwest’s sophomore quarterback stood tall in the pocket, scanning through his four-receiver progression on a first-and-10 from Washburn’s 42-yard line. From there, amid a pocket that was collapsing in every direction, Hohensee threw up a desperation pass intended for senior wideout Kaden Davis toward the venue’s southernmost end zone.
Davis didn’t come down with Hohensee’s pass, though.
Instead, it was Washburn defensive back Kevin Neal Jr. who went down to the turf with the ball, and the interception all but sealed the Ichabods’ 17-16 upset over No. 2 Northwest Saturday afternoon.
“Honestly, I just feel like we rushed it,” said Northwest senior running back Al McKeller, who was in pass protection on the aforementioned play. “It wasn’t meant to happen. Like, we just rushed it. I felt like we had plenty of time left … just rushed it.”
“It’s overwhelming, not gonna lie,” Washburn redshirt freshman quarterback Kellen Simoncic said of the win. “It’s exciting. To play a great team — we were the No. 1 offense, and they were the No. 1 defense — we were confident we could win this game, because that’s how you have to come in every game.”
The Bearcats (5-1) never expected to be in a position in which they’d have to rely on last-minute heroics from their offense to beat a non-ranked conference opponent.
On a third-and-11 from Washburn’s 30-yard line with roughly seven minutes left in the game, Northwest senior defensive back J’Ravien Anderson intercepted a pass from Simoncic.
The offense took advantage of the field position, eventually finishing an eight-play, 37-yard drive to take a 14-10 lead over the Ichabods with 4 minutes and 15 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Following an errant return on the ensuing kickoff, Washburn’s offense set up on its own 4-yard line. After an incompletion from Simoncic on first down, Northwest’s offense started to gain momentum.
That was stopped, though, when an unnecessary-roughness penalty negated a sack in the end zone by Northwest senior linebacker Jackson Barnes, giving the Ichabods (5-2) an automatic first down on their own 19.
“The play in the end zone, in my opinion, wasn’t a personal foul; his helmet fell off,” Northwest fifth-year coach Rich Wright said. “That was a big momentum shift there. Then, we just couldn’t get ourselves off the field, and that’s completely on us as a defense. We want to be out there in that situation. That’s why you come to Northwest to play college football.”
The Ichabods were able to drain the game’s clock to less than a minute before, on a second-and-5 from Northwest’s 15, Simoncic connected with sophomore running back Taylon Peters for a 15-yard, catch-and-run touchdown to take a 17-14 lead with 48 seconds left.
“Basically, we beat ourselves,” Anderson said in the aftermath of the 1-point loss. “It’s not like they went out there and manhandled us; we beat ourselves. It’s tough.”
Northwest’s final 2 points of the contest came when Simoncic stepped out the back of the end zone with eight seconds remaining and took a safety, electing to make the Bearcats’ offense attempt one final play. That play didn’t work, eventually ending when McKeller fumbled after being hit by a group of defenders.
But for the second time in as many weeks, the Bearcats were striving to overcome first-half ineptitude on offense. Despite an eventual 20-19 win against Pitt State in Week 6, Northwest wasn’t able to score in the first half.
The same thing happened Saturday, trailing the Ichabods 3-0 heading into halftime. The difference, of course, is that the second-half heroics made up for the offense’s lack of first-half production against Pitt.
It didn’t against Washburn.
“What I told those guys, is that, we’ve lived on the edge for the last two weeks,” Wright said. “We got out of it a week ago at home, and we didn’t get out of it today.”
The Bearcats had chances to put points on the board throughout the first 30 minutes of the game, but Washburn’s defense prevented them from doing just that.
Instead, Northwest had two separate drives stall in the red zone.
The first missed opportunity was a missed 27-yard field goal from freshman kicker Cole Lammel. It was a swing of the leg that was expected to put the punctuation on an 84-yard drive that took more than nine minutes off of the clock in the first quarter. The ball sailed wide right.
The second, an interception thrown by Hohensee on third-and-6 from Washburn’s 14-yard line with 55 seconds left before halftime.
“I felt like we moved the ball in the first half, we just weren’t getting any points,” Wright said. “We either shot ourselves in the foot or had some untimely penalty calls. …. That’s the frustrating part. I didn’t think we came out with the energy we really needed to today.”
Lammel had a chance to make up for his first-half miss at the beginning of the fourth quarter, when Washburn’s defense held the Bearcats from converting a third-and-4 from the Ichabods’ 4-yard line.
It was a 22-yard attempt, 5 yards closer than the miss from earlier in the game.
Similar to his first, he missed.
If Lammel was able to make one of those field goals, he would’ve kept Northwest as the lone unblemished team in the MIAA. Since No. 1 West Florida — the reigning champions — lost, making one of those field goals would've propelled the Bearcats to the top spot in Division II.
“Kickers are used to that situation, you know? You’re only as good as your last kick, and he’ll bounce back,” Wright said of his first-year kicker. “We gotta convert on those things. … We’re leaving points out on the field, and we can’t afford to do that.”
The game should’ve never been that close, McKeller said. The ’Cats shouldn’t have had to rely on their kicker to beat Washburn, he added.
Amid a group of reporters, while the Ichabods celebrated with the fans who rushed the field, McKeller wasn’t really worried about his first loss since transferring to Northwest from the University of Indianapolis. The Bearcats have to start faster, he said, and he knows they can’t let games be as close as they have been during the last two weeks.
Wright isn’t worried about it, either. He’s coached through more wins than losses, but when his team loses, it serves as a point of readjustment, a response the Bearcats are hoping to put on display when they travel to Tahlequah, Oklahoma, for a Week 8 matchup with Northeastern State (2-6) Oct. 23.
“Losing can be a great learning tool if you apply it correctly,” Wright said. “So, there’s nothing we can do to change the outcome of this football game. All we can do is move forward in our preparation and resolve, and we’ll learn a lot about this football team in the coming weeks.”