The Northwest football program has been here before.
The Bearcats met with Ferris State in November 2018, defeating Grand Valley State in the first round before making the 10-hour trek and returning to Maryville with a 27-21, season-ending loss courtesy of the Bulldogs.
They did it in December 2019, too, beating Harding in the first round and Lindenwood in the second before making the 10-hour trek and returning to Maryville with a 25-3, season-ending loss courtesy of the Bulldogs.
And after capturing a second-round victory over Harding Nov. 27 in Searcy, Arkansas, one that followed a 50-21 beatdown of Central Washington Nov. 20 in Bearcat Stadium, the Bearcats are packing their bags for a trip on the road to redemption.
“Two years ago, when we went up to Ferris and got beat, I was OK with it, because — I wasn’t OK with it, but I was in the sense that they were a better football team than we were,” Northwest football coach Rich Wright said Jan. 16, 2020, roughly five weeks removed from the program’s most recent loss to Ferris. “Walking away from that game this year, I didn’t feel like they were a better football team than we were. That doesn’t sleep well with me.”
Despite Wright’s latest trip to Top Taggart Field leaving unwelcomed afterthoughts, he and the No. 3 Bearcats will have a chance to avenge their losses when they, once again, make the 10-hour trek to play the No. 1 Bulldogs in the NCAA Division II quarterfinals Dec. 4 in Big Rapids, Michigan.
Wright’s looking to flip the script on the previous two matchups, of course, including the one from 2019 that included the program’s worst offensive output of Wright’s five-year tenure.
“Really don’t look at it in terms of what happened in 2019, other than the fact that everything’s a learning experience,” Wright said Tuesday afternoon at the Northwest Athletics Media Luncheon. “Changing the narrative is gonna be to get more than six first downs in the football game. … I feel like we’re a much different team this year going into this game, but, ultimately, you’ve gotta go up there and prove it.”
The ’Cats (11-1) will enter the matchup with the Bulldogs (11-0) on the heels of a 28-9 triumph over the Bisons, a win that didn’t seem likely throughout the first 28 minutes of action, at least not based on the offense’s performance.
When the Bearcats took the field with 2 minutes and 32 seconds left in the first half, they had mustered a meager 31 yards of total offense, an outing that, prior to that point, mirrored their 2019 meeting with Ferris.
That’s when junior quarterback Braden Wright, who was 2-of-5 for 29 yards with a touchdown and interception up to that point, engineered an 11-play, 80-yard drive that took up 2 minutes and 26 seconds to give Northwest a 14-9 lead at halftime. It was a drive that gave the Bearcats momentum for the rest of the game, using the first drive of the second half to score in three plays en route to a 21-9 advantage, and it was a drive that gave the Bearcats momentum that they’re hoping carries over into their meeting with Ferris.
“I think a freshman or sophomore Braden Wright might’ve stayed in the funk that he was in during the first half, but he didn’t do that,” Rich Wright said of the three-year starter. “Credit to the offensive coaches and Coach (Todd) Sturdy for flipping the script. The run game wasn’t working, so we went to something else. … I think that’s where we’re different from years prior.”
Braden Wright was the starter during the two aforementioned losses to Ferris, going 34-of-59 for 323 yards passing with two touchdowns and two interceptions throughout both games while the Bearcats put up an average of 229 yards of offense against the Bulldogs. They’re planning to change that, though, building on a unit that’s averaged 464.1 yards per contest, a mark that’s the 10th-best in Division II.
And while Northwest figures out who will start between him and sophomore quarterback Mike Hohensee, who exited the Bearcats’ first-round matchup in the second quarter with a non-contact injury and missed all of the win over Harding despite being dressed out, the Bulldogs are the ones with a predicament at the helm of their offense.
Ferris’ starting quarterback, senior Jared Bernhardt, was injured and never returned during the second quarter of the Bulldogs’ 54-20 win over rival Grand Valley State in the second round. It’s, oddly enough, not an unfamiliar situation for Rich Wright to see amid preparation for Ferris. The Bulldogs have been without their starting quarterback in each of the last two matchups.
This time will be different, though, because this isn’t the first time Bernhardt has sat out this season.
“One advantage to it this time is that (Bernhardt) has missed some games this season,” Rich Wright said. “We have a pretty good look at their other two guys on film; we know what they can do. … Both No. 0 and No. 2 are good football players. They do some different things. The game plan going into them will be slightly different but not drastically. The offense still is what it is.”
The No. 0 Rich Wright was referring to is Bulldogs sophomore Mylik Mitchell, who transferred to Ferris’ program after spending a season at Kent State University. Mitchell has played in 11 games this season, going 65-of-110 (64.4%) for 993 yards passing with nine touchdowns and two interceptions.
The No. 2 is junior Evan Cummings, who has played in nine games this season and thrown for 389 yards, seven touchdowns and an interception while completing 53.7% of his passes (29-of-54). He’s versatile, too, adding six rushing touchdowns.
The lack of familiarity doesn’t stop there — not just for Ferris, but for Northwest as well.
Rich Wright isn’t too caught up in what happened the last two seasons, and that’s mostly because the teams are so vastly different than they were then. For the Bearcats, that includes senior Dedrick Strambler, who came to Maryville for his last collegiate season, and who missed Northwest’s matchup with Central Washington before returning during the meeting with Harding.
The starting safety who transferred to Northwest from Hardin-Simmons University has never played Ferris before, but he said he became a Bearcat to play in games exactly like this one. The one thing he’s sure about the Bulldogs is what his first-year teammates have told him.
“They said it’s gonna be a good game. They have good players, but so do we,” Strambler said Tuesday afternoon. “They said (the Bulldogs) like to talk a lot. I mean, talking only gets you so far until you get in between the white lines, so we’ll see what happens between those.”
It won’t matter that the Bearcats haven’t beaten the Bulldogs since Dec. 10, 2016. It won’t matter that Northwest has the opportunity to be the first team to defeat Ferris since West Florida, the eventual champions, did in the semifinals Dec. 14, 2019.
Strambler is exactly right about what happens between each team’s sideline, because that’ll be the only thing that matters when the two programs meet with the offseason looming for either the Bearcats or the Bulldogs.
Eight teams will enter their weekend with title hopes intact. Four teams will live to see another week. The other four will start preparing for next season as early as Saturday night. With all of that hanging in the balance, including the winner of the latest meeting between Northwest and Ferris hosting a home game in the semifinals, Rich Wright and company aren’t expecting anything less than a dog fight.