Northwest football found itself down late in the fourth quarter against Nebraska-Kearney Oct. 19 with one last realistic chance at scoring.
The Bearcats started what they hoped would be a last-minute scoring drive with 3:28 left in the fourth quarter. Six plays later, the drive and game came to an effective end via a fumble from sophomore quarterback Braden Wright fumble. Northwest (6-1) took its first loss of the season, falling to Kearney (5-2) 24-17.
In the aftermath of the 7-point loss, coach Rich Wright said he was frustrated. Three days later, facing a group of reporters at the weekly Northwest Athletics media luncheon Oct. 22, he said he still was.
“As a head coach, it sits with you,” Rich Wright said. “I’ve had a bad taste in my mouth since that final possession at Kearney, and it won’t change until we play another opponent. There’s a sense of, I don’t know, angst, urgency. You want to teach the lessons. You want to make sure they understand just what the implications of all this are.”
After an upset loss to an up-and-coming team in the MIAA, the implications are indeed wide-ranging. Northwest dropped from the No. 7-ranked team nationally to the No. 14 spot. The team no longer sits tied atop the conference standings with Central Missouri (7-0), its Week 11 opponent. The thought of potential slate of home-field playoff games was essentially wiped away.
Perhaps the biggest side effect of the loss to Kearney for the Bearcats will be their next step, a step mostly unaffected by their next opponent. With Lincoln (1-6), one of the worst teams in the MIAA, headed to Maryville for Northwest’s Homecoming matchup Oct. 26, the Bearcats are focused on themselves.
Rich Wright said he’s more occupied with addressing mistakes and correcting deficiencies than he is game-planning for the Blue Tigers. Minute errors and execution breakdowns, Rich Wright said, were the difference between a win and a loss for Northwest in Nebraska. He’s determined to fix that this week in practice. He’s not considering the long-term ramifications of Northwest’s blunder in Kearney.
The Bearcats, Rich Wright said, have got to find the good in the wake of a bad trip to Kearney.
“I can’t worry about that right now,” Rich Wright said. “What I’ve got to worry about it our football team and getting better. We just — we need to focus on today in practice. When we get done with today’s practice, our focus and attention needs to be on Wednesday’s practice.”
“When you have success,” he added, “sometimes you forget the details.”
In Kearney, the details included pass-catching, form-tackling and ball-security, issues that plagued the Bearcats for much of the game last weekend. Rich Wright said he didn’t think the team could have played a worse first half, though the Bearcats entered their locker room on the south side of Cope Stadium down 14-0.
Rich Wright reprimanded his own team’s execution while offering acute praise for Kearney. Borrowing words from former NFL coach Dennis Green, Rich Wright said the Lopers are exactly who Northwest thought they were. The Bearcats simply failed to execute.
“I knew it would be a physical game, I knew it would be their Super Bowl,” Rich Wright said. “You can ask anybody in our complex, you know, I tried to preach that all week because I knew that’s what we were going to get.”
Northwest, though, is used to taking every team’s best shot, a theme Rich Wright has discussed repeatedly ahead of matchups and after close games this season. The weekly punches thrown at the program, he said Oct. 22, come with the territory of being historically great, a trait that meant nothing in Nebraska, but perhaps meant everything to Kearney.
For sophomore cornerback Trey Washington, who leads the MIAA in interceptions (4) and sits tied for the conference lead in passes defended (12), Kearney’s dynamic play wasn’t a surprise. Northwest’s inability to respond was.
“I think that was a huge thing for us, especially last week and Emporia week, was we’re going to get everybody’s best shot regardless of who we’re playing,” Washington said. “And we saw that. We didn’t come out prepared, I don’t think, mentally. We didn’t have the energy for either of those games and it showed — especially in the Kearney game.”
Washington said the defense wasn’t fully prepared for the efforts of Kearney’s redshirt freshman quarterback T.J. Davis, a run-option specialist who Rich Wright said “played out of his mind” against the Bearcats. Northwest needs to attack this week of practice with renewed passion, Washington said, passion that may have netted Northwest a 7-0 record had it been present in Kearney.
Rich Wright said he expects and has already felt a renewed sense of urgency in the early part of the week among his players, an urgency he expects to show up in the box score against the Blue Tigers. On the heels of the upset in Kearney, Northwest’s matchup with Lincoln figures to serve as an opportunity for redemption and an outlet for frustration.
Northwest’s path forward is one that revolves around execution, Rich Wright said. The Bearcats’ renewed sense of urgency won’t help if they don’t play to their capabilities. Their path to a conference is less clear now than it was a week ago, but Northwest still controls its own fate the road to which begins Oct. 26 against Lincoln, the coach said.
“We can’t control what happened last week in Kearney now,” Rich Wright said. “There’s nothing we can do to change the outcome. What we can do is change what our outcomes look like moving forward. We still have four games, and everything we want is on the table for us, but we have to play well in order to achieve it.”