On the heels of a lopsided win over an inferior opponent, Northwest football is seeking another lopsided win over another inferior opponent.
The No. 14 Bearcats (7-1) thoroughly thrashed Lincoln (1-7) Oct. 26, scoring a 56-9 win over the Blue Tigers at Bearcat Stadium in the Homecoming matchup, one where Northwest didn’t yield a point to Lincoln’s offensive unit.
The immediate challenge ahead of the Bearcats isn’t much of one. Northwest’s Week 9 opponent, Northeastern State (0-8), is the only team in the MIAA that’s managed to lose to conference-newcomer Lincoln this season.
The matchup, on paper, isn’t close. The Bearcats, senior defensive end Mike Ehlke said, are aware of that.
“This is more of a focus on our season as a whole,” Ehlke said. “The win is expected, obviously, but it’s winning in a certain fashion here. We need to be able to fire on all of our cylinder and look good, especially going into the tougher weeks coming up.”
A win over Northeastern State, by itself, won’t qualify as a win in Northwest’s own book. For coach Rich Wright, the win has to play out with at a certain level of convincingness, and the Bearcats have to practice this week with increased intensity. Wright said he’s holding Northwest to what he’s referred to in recent weeks as the “Bearcat standard.”
“Our objective is to play to our standard on Saturday, so that’s how we’re gonna prepare this week,” Wright said. “We play, obviously, whoever’s on the schedule. … It’s less focus on our opponent. We prepare the same regardless of who we play, but it’s really more of the details put on what we’re doing each and every day in the complex.”
The tougher weeks Ehlke referred to, and what Wright has called the “stretch run,” awaits Northwest in the opponents beyond Northeastern. The team is gearing up for its final two weeks, when the Bearcats will square off against Fort Hays State (6-2) Nov. 9 and Central Missouri (8-0) Nov. 16.
For the MIAA, the final two weeks of Northwest’s season serve as a snapshot of the conference’s toughness. Central Missouri, Northwest, Fort Hays State and Missouri Western all landed in the top 10 in DII Football’s first Super Region 3 regional rankings, dictating which teams earn postseason bids.
For Northwest, the season’s last two weeks will serve as both a gut check and a litmus test. In each of the last two seasons, Northwest has lost to Fort Hays with the outright MIAA title on the line. Central Missouri’s high-powered offense will pose a challenge to the Bearcats’ inconsistent pass defense unlike one the group has seen before.
“(We have to) just play to the level of our expectations,” Wright said. “The funny thing is that you get a lot of noise from the outside, but I don’t think there’s any place where the level of expectation is any higher than it is within our own team. … We have high goals; we have standards. I just want to play to our Bearcat standard. … That’s what I’m looking for.”
Northwest’s Nov. 2 matchup with the RiverHawks will serve mostly as a dry run and a workout heading into the team’s contests with the Tigers in Hays, Kansas, Nov. 9. The Bearcats’ last matchup with Hays came Nov. 3, 2018, and ended with a 17-16 Northwest loss, one that forced the team to share its eventual conference title with the Tigers.
This time around, the Tigers seem poised to be out of the running for the MIAA, though an at-large postseason bid is still on the table for Fort Hays. Both teams, of course, will be fighting for a chance to play beyond Week 11 and into the NCAA playoffs. Northwest can’t afford to drop what should be a sure-win to Northeastern, nor can the team afford to lose to Hays in Week 10.
“They’re all important now,” Wright said. “With the goals and aspirations that we have, we have the mentality that we need to win out. If we want to win a conference championship and do the things we say we want to, you can’t do that without getting a victory against Northeastern State.”
The Bearcats’ long-term focus remains on winning a national title, a feat that has eluded Northwest since 2016. The drought, on a larger scale, has been brief, but it’s stretched the entirety of the Rich Wright era.
In their current state, ranked No. 6 in Super Region 3, the Bearcats would be forced to play on the road in Week 1 of the postseason. The Bearcats have never won a title without securing a first round bye, a privilege only afforded to the region’s top seed. A shot at the region’s No. 1 seed likely disappeared with Northwest’s Week 7 loss to Nebraska-Kearney Oct. 19.
The particulars of Northwest’s seeding are only partly in the Bearcats’ control. An opportunity at first round bye is out of it. For now, it’s out of Wright and the team’s minds, too.
“I don’t control it, so there’s really — it’s not even on my radar,” Wright said. “What’s on my radar is to finish the last three games of the season and see where the chips fall. … That was a goal of ours, was to try and be a No. 1 seed. That’s probably not gonna happen, so the rest of it doesn’t matter. We just have to take care of what we control. … My goal is to win the next three football games and see what happens.”