JOPLIN, Mo. — Northwest football coach Rich Wright emphasized to reporters earlier in the week, heading into the Bearcats’ Sept. 21 matchup with Missouri Southern, that the team needed to start quickly against the Lions.
The Bearcats, Wright said, worked on the skill throughout the week by “literally practicing starting fast.”
It appeared, in the early going of Northwest’s matchup with Southern, the practice paid off. Northwest converted a 68-yard touchdown on its second play from scrimmage, courtesy a deep ball from the arm of sophomore quarterback Braden Wright that found junior wideout Imoni Donadelle for the score.
The play foreshadowed what the rest of the matchup would look like for Northwest. Braden Wright would account for three touchdowns. Donadelle would catch two. Northwest took the 7-0 lead in stride and never looked back, beating Missouri Southern 66-34, the lastest thrashing in a line of 24th straight wins for the Bearcats over the Lions.
“These guys work and grind all week long to come play in a football game,” Rich Wright said. “Once again, was it perfect? Heck no, it wasn’t perfect. But you’ve got to celebrate this.”
In most ways, the win was the most convincing of the year so far for the Bearcats. The offense accounted for 52 points posted on Southern’s scoreboard. The defense added the remaining 14, recording two pick-sixes and six total interceptions against senior Lions’ quarterback Jacob Park. The Lions spent most of the game trailing Northwest by double digits.
Northwest piled on 38 points in the first half, many of which were courtesy the team’s usual suspects. Braden Wright, Donadelle, running backs Justin Rankin and Isaiah Strayhorn and junior wideout Alec Tatum etched their names into the first half’s stat sheet, all adding to Northwest’s excessive point total.
The Bearcats entered the break with a commanding 38-21 lead despite allowing the Lions to score twice within the six minutes leading into halftime. Facing a 24-point deficit and a 53-yard path the endzone with 32 seconds left in the first half, Southern engineered a touchdown drive that took just 18 seconds. The drive, capped off by a 7-yard touchdown pass from Park to junior wide receiver Jaedon Stoshak, provided a glimpse of hope for Southern.
“My only disappointment in the first half was the last drive where they scored with like 20-something seconds (left),” Rich Wright said. “We can’t let that happen. Good defenses don’t let that happen.”
Northwest briefly continued to slip in the game’s third quarter. After extending their lead to 24-21 courtesy a 45-yard touchdown catch from Donadelle from redshirt freshman quarterback Mike Hohensee, who has seen time in a mostly-wild cat role for Northwest, the Bearcats stumbled.
Following Donadelle’s second score, the ‘Cats’ defense allowed Southern to execute a seven-play, 75-yard drive for a touchdown. Shortly after, Braden Wright threw an interception returned for a touchdown by Jaylon Alexander. The pair of Southern scores pulled the Lions within 9 points, bringing the score to 45-34.
The Bearcats, of course, responded. Northwest followed Southern’s pick-six with an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive capped off by a 28-yard touchdown pass from Braden Wright to sophomore receiver LaTroy Harper, a play that Rich Wright said “put the game away.”
From there, Northwest kept building while Southern remained stagnant. In all, the offense piled on 25 first downs, 633 yards and 7 touchdowns. For the defense, results were mixed.
“We’re definitely a high scoring offense,” Donadelle said. “When we’re clicking, we’ve just got to keep clicking and not let the gas up. Just keep moving forward.”
In some ways, the game highlighted the best Northwest’s defense. The unit allowed just 21 points in the contest. It gave up 6.7 yards per pass attempt and 16 rushing yards in four quarters. It allowed Southern just one offensive score in the second half. Northwest walked away with six interceptions, two of which were snagged by senior defensive back Jerrell Green. He returned one for a touchdown.
“It feels amazing,” Green said. “I dropped one in the first game, so I needed to redeem myself because everybody was giving me a lot of crap about it. I mean, it felt good.”
The win, of course, wasn’t perfect for Northwest. The Bearcats still need to focus on improvement, Rich Wright said, and on playing a complete game. The defense broke down in the series before halftime. The offense lulled in the third quarter. There are mistakes to improve upon, Rich Wright said.
“We have to understand that this is the MIAA and we’re going to get everybody’s best shot,” Rich Wright said. “There’s pretty good parity in this league and everybody's trying to get better.”
For Northwest, the game came with more highlights than inconsistencies, more key plays than underperformers. The Bearcats’ showing marked improvement. But after trekking to Joplin and scoring a 32-point win over an up-and-coming conference opponent, they aren’t settling. They’ll be back at it this Monday, nitpicking film and working to get better.
“That’s what we do,” Donadelle said. “We battle every day. We give the defense our all every time we play against them at practice and they give us their all. We’re just built different.”