Northwest football doesn’t have a conference title in hand, nor has the team clinched a playoff spot. All the Bearcats really have is a matchup with Central Missouri Nov. 16 and a list of goals, one they made four months ago.
The Bearcats crafted the list before they survived a Week 1 scare at Missouri Western. They made it before they trailed the likes of Washburn, Emporia State and Lincoln early in contests. It was before they scored statement wins over Pittsburg State, Central Oklahoma and Fort Hays State and before they would suffer a damaging loss in Kearney, Nebraska in Week 7.
Back then, the Bearcats (9-1) set out to accomplish two things, among others: they’re aiming to win a share of the MIAA Conference Championship and to make an appearance in the NCAA Division II Playoff. The to-do list is something coach Rich Wright has referenced throughout the season and increasingly so in recent weeks, and one he mentioned again at the Northwest Athletics’ media luncheon Nov. 12.
For Northwest, the next step comes Nov. 16. With a win over No. 9 Central Missouri (10-0) in Week 11, the No. 12 Bearcats would check both items off the list.
“All those things are in front of (us) if we win on Saturday,” Rich Wright said. “And to me, that’s the underlying motivation.”
The matchup, a home contest for Northwest, pits two of the highest-ranked teams in the conference and in the NCAA’s central region against one another. Central, of course, hasn’t lost. The Mules tout the highest-scoring offense in the country and possess the No. 2 ranking in Division II’s Super Region 3.
Northwest is ranked No. 6 in the region, rising from the No. 7 spot after a gutsy 36-33 overtime win against Fort Hays State Nov. 9 in Kansas. The top seven teams in the region make the postseason. The top four secure a bye or a home playoff game. For Northwest, both possibilities remain on the table.
Northwest and Central have met 98 times in the all-time series, where the Bearcats have won 60 of the matchups. They’ve won 15 of the last 16 against the Mules, including a season-finale victory last year that gave Northwest a share of the MIAA crown. Still, the Bearcats, who Rich Wright championed as underdogs in their trip to Hays, Kansas, a week ago, will not be favored to win their Week 11 matchup with Central.
Northwest fell down by three scores to Fort Hays a week ago before clawing its way back. The defense buckled late in regulation of the overtime win. The effort, of course, was good enough in the matchup with the Tigers. It likely wouldn’t be against the Mules.
“Heck yeah, we’re the underdog,” Rich Wright said. “They’re undefeated. I watched a video of (the Mules) holding up a conference championship trophy last weekend, so, yeah, we’re the underdog. We’re just gonna show up and play ‘em.”
Central’s daunting offense is led by Brook Bolles, a sixth-year senior who redshirted in 2014 and was granted a medical redshirt last year after suffering a season-ending injury in Week 1. The All-American honorable mention is the younger brother of Blake and Brady Bolles, who quarterbacked Northwest to national championships in 2009 and 2015, respectively.
The Bolles family has a history of making history in Maryville. Brook Bolles will have a chance to do the same, with a perfect regular season and sole possession of the MIAA on the line at Bearcat Stadium.
“Brook is a good kid. I’m happy to see the success that he’s had coming off the injury that he did a year ago,” Rich Wright said. “And I’m a fan of their family. I’m a fan every game but one game a year. We’re looking forward to the challenge of playing him because he’s a really good quarterback.”
Rich Wright said Northwest had already signed two quarterbacks in Brook Bolles’ recruiting class before 2014 and made no serious attempt to recruit the one-time heir-apparent in Northwest’s quarterback room. The coach was still Northwest’s defensive coordinator at the time. He’s not sure why the team didn’t make a run at Brook Bolles.
“That was on coach (Adam) Dorrel, not me,” Rich Wright joked. “I didn’t have much say-so in that one. So I’ll throw him under the bus on that, how about that?”
For Northwest, the Week 11 contest will pit the quarterback that could’ve been against the quarterback that is. Sophomore gunslinger Braden Wright isn’t focused on the individual matchup with Brook Bolles or any potential comparisons.
The game ahead of Northwest will determine the particulars of a postseason trip the team may or may not make. Braden Wright said he’s excited about the prospect of matching up with Bolles, but his focus remains on taking care of business at Bearcat Stadium.
“We’ve got to go out and finish the job,” Braden Wright said. “We haven’t won anything yet. We haven’t secured a spot in the playoffs yet. It’s all still there for the taking. We just have to go do it.”
A week after facing an end-all situation in Hays, Rich Wright’s sense of urgency has been replaced by a looseness of sorts. The coach has earned 27 victories in his nearly three-year tenure, but perhaps none of them were as dire as last week’s overtime triumph over the Tigers.
A loss at Lewis Field Stadium would have derailed Northwest’s season and may have placed the third-year coach in a warming seat. Instead, the performance in Hays gave the Bearcats a marquee win and a degree of confidence heading into a tough matchup.
“Judging from the buzz that’s in the complex this week,” Rich Wright said, “I would be surprised if we weren’t ready to play Saturday.”
A win over Central would reestablish Northwest as the top team in the conference, one of the top conferences in the country. It would give the Bearcats their 30th share of an MIAA championship in the program’s history. It would secure the team a playoff spot for the 16th season in a row.
It’s unclear what a loss would do. That outcome is likely dependent on how other playoff-caliber teams in the region perform in Week 11. Northwest, though, isn’t concerned with the potential ramifications of a hypothetical loss to a dominant conference rival. For once, the Bearcats aren’t acting as the team with everything at stake.
“Around here, we usually have a target on our back,” Rich Wright said. “We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. I mean, that’s the one thing I’ve learned after being here for 16 seasons, is that the 2019 Northwest Missouri State Bearcats don’t have anything yet. We have nothing to protect. We have to show up and win a football game.”