Northwest football, followed by legions of fans and students, is going to make the southbound trip to Spratt Memorial Stadium this Thursday, renewing a decades-old rivalry with Missouri Western.
The two schools’ campuses are a little more than 45 miles apart, but their football programs couldn’t be much further apart. A rivalry, by definition, implies that the two teams are battling for some form of superiority, a fight between Northwest and Missouri Western that’s been overwhelmingly one-sided for the better part of two decades now.
The Bearcats haven’t lost a game to Missouri Western since 2012, beating the Griffons in six consecutive matchups.
The streak predates both team’s head coaches, who each enter their third season at the helm of their respective program. Northwest coach Rich Wright was the defensive coordinator for the Bearcats the last time they lost to Missouri Western. Griffons coach Matt Williamson was working for Central Arkansas. Northwest sophomore quarterback Braden Wright was in eighth grade.
It’s not just that Northwest has been consistently better than Western; the Bearcats have been dominant. Over the six-year win streak, Northwest’s average margin of victory has been 29.0 points. In 2012, the last time the Griffons were able to take down the Bearcats, they did so by a score of 21-20.
The statistics and records go on and on, and nearly every one of them teeters in the favor of Northwest.
Hall of Fame coach Mel Tjeersdma was hired to turn Northwest football around in 1994 and Missouri Western has beaten Northwest just six times in the 25 years since. Only four of those six wins came after the turn of the century. Western has beaten Northwest twice since Rich Wright arrived as a defensive line coach 15 years ago in 2004.
For most of the last two decades, Northwest versus Missouri Western has been the rivalry that hasn’t seemed to feel like much of one, a rivalry plagued with a predictable outcome: Northwest is 21-4 in the two teams’ last 25 meetings.
But Rich Wright doesn’t see it that way. He won’t cower behind coachspeak and declare the Western matchup the same as all the rest, because, for him, it’s not.
“I’ve never been a guy that hides behind cliches: ‘Oh, it’s just another game,’” Rich Wright said. “No, it’s MoWest. Why not embrace that? It’s two schools, 30 minutes apart. … As far as that piece of it, let it be what it is. Auburn-Alabama. There are games — and I don’t care what the records are and I don’t care who’s playing for what — yeah, it’s a rivalry game.”
Wright said he expects the atmosphere in St. Joseph to be dynamic on game day — the type of environment Northwest uses as a recruitment tool. And despite the aforementioned statistics, those numbers that paint Northwest out to be the Goliath to Missouri Western’s David, the Bearcats expect a battle.
A part of that expectation comes from Western’s brand. Under Williamson, the Griffons have been defined by a certain degree of physicality and toughness, particularly at their offensive front.
Western is returning four All-MIAA standout players on their offensive line, the core of a group that gave up the fewest sacks in the conference last season. Northwest, meanwhile, touts a defensive front-seven that recorded more sacks than any other MIAA team a season ago.
The defense has long been Northwest’s bread and butter. The Bearcats were the No. 1 scoring defense in the country in 2017, allowing just 9.3 points per game. They were good for the No. 6 spot nationally last season after allowing 14.6 points per contest. Still, senior defensive end and captain Spencer Phillips said, the team implemented changes this offseason. They want to be better.
“In my opinion, (Western) is one of the most physical offensive lines we played last year,” Phillips said. “But, in the end, we had another year to grow. … We’re going to be set against anything MoWest has to throw at us.”
Northwest is used to physicality, though. Having won four NCAA Division II National Championships in the last 10 years, the Bearcats have played most of their games with a permanent target on their backs for at least a decade, Rich Wright said. They’re used to taking every team’s best shot every single week.
Teams tend to plan differently when matching up against Northwest, sometimes making drastic scheme changes to their gameplan in an effort to catch the Bearcats off guard. Rich Wright said, at times, opponents implement entirely different systems, apparently reserved for matchups with the Bearcats. That, coupled with the inherent uncertainties of a Week 1 matchup, leaves Northwest unsure of what to expect from Western.
The personnel will be different than what it was a season ago for Western. The Griffons’ scheme may be, too. In any case, the Bearcats are expecting a dogfight.
“It’s going to be a smashmouth game,” Rich Wright said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
The nature of Week 1 matchups allows both teams months of preparation time with no true way to prepare. The Bearcats could have studied Western’s 2018 game film diligently the entire offseason, Wright said, but it wouldn’t matter if the Griffons’ offense was redesigned entirely. The same sentiment applies to Western, of course, and it applies an increased focused to each team’s physicality.
“We pride ourselves on being physical and being pretty good against offensive lines,” Rich Wright said. “I think that Missouri Western was one of the best offensive lines we faced last year. We usually try and rise to the occasion against people like that. It should be a great matchup and we’ll find out who wins the test of wills inside.”
Northwest enters the rivalry matchup with a clear historical advantage on the heels of a season that, through inconsistencies and key departures, left more questions asked than answered. At the season’s start, most of the question marks left by last season’s team appear to have been sured up.
Rich Wright said he expects a year of maturation from Braden Wright, who entered the fray as a redshirt freshman last season, to pay dividends. He said he thinks the offensive line has improved and he thinks the offense, as a whole, should prove more consistent.
Phillips said the defense is as good as it always has been — something he thinks is expected at this point. Thursday’s game will serve as a litmus test for the team’s apparent progress.
The Bearcats have been playing against themselves all summer, aching to play a contest that isn’t a scrimmage against an opponent who isn’t a teammate. The challenge that awaits Northwest is as much an opportunity as it is a test. And it is, of course, a rivalry.
“Especially knowing that we’ve been going against each other for, what, four weeks?” Phillips said. “I’m ready to hit somebody else. I’m ready. I’m ready for MoWest.”