KEARNEY, Neb. — Northwest football coach Rich Wright removed his headset and red hat and scratched his head. Fans of Nebraska-Kearney football cheered as loud as they had all afternoon. The Lopers had just driven 75 yards in 14 plays, to take a 21-0 lead over Northwest in the first drive of the third quarter.
The series took Kearney 6:48 to complete. There was still time, of course. Northwest could have forged a comeback win despite the 21-point deficit. The team nearly did.
But on the heels of Kearney’s third score of the game, the Bearcats were 23 minutes and 12 seconds away from their first loss of the season. Nothing they did over the final quarter-and-half of football changed their fate.
The Lopers (5-2) held off the Bearcats (6-1) and their last-ditch efforts, serving Northwest a 24-17 loss Oct. 19. Rich Wright said ahead of the matchup that Northwest would aim to hold the Lopers to under 50 yards. The Bearcats didn’t come close to hitting that mark. They allowed 228 rushing yards in the contest.
Rich Wright exited the field at Cope Stadium unsatisfied with his team’s offensive performance and annoyed with his defense. The Lopers walked away with a defining conference win over a previously-undefeated team. The Bearcats walked away with a loss that was, in some ways, head-scratching.
“I’m frustrated,” Rich Wright said. “We didn’t play well. We dug ourselves way too big of a hole. You’re not gonna win a game in the MIAA when you go minus-three in the turnover margin. We gave up four turnovers today.”
For the third week in a row, Northwest found itself down early to start the contest, yielding a 7-0 lead to the Lopers after an interception from sophomore quarterback Braden Wright set Kearney up in Northwest territory. Six plays later, the Lopers took the early lead on a 12-yard touchdown pass from redshirt freshman quarterback T.J. Davis to senior running back Darrius Webb.
Davis served as a thorn in Northwest’s side for the duration of the game, rushing for 110 yards on 23 attempts and scrambling to evade the Bearcats’ pash rush, extending plays and keeping Kearney drives alive.
Davis rushed for the Lopers’ second score of the day, running for a 2-yard touchdown with 2:30 left in the first quarter. The play gave Kearney a 14-0 lead with more than 17 minutes left in the first half. Northwest failed to respond.
The Lopers entered the break with a two-score lead over what was the No. 6 scoring offense in the country heading into the matchup. It marked the first time Northwest was blanked in the first half since Nov. 20, 2010.
“We can’t dig ourselves into holes like that,” Braden Wright said. “Coach Wright just talked about it twice to us: at halftime and after the game. We dug ourselves a hole.”
Northwest’s offense mustered 70 total yards in the first half and committed three first-half turnovers. In his first collegiate game in Nebraska, Braden Wright, a native of Elkhorn, Nebraska, finished with 116 yards on 9-of-22 passing, 1 touchdown and 1 interception.
The Bearcats failed to convert on a number of open looks throughout the game and throughout the first half. Senior tight end Marqus Andrews let two balls bounce off his hands, one of which came on a third-down in the second quarter.
In the aftermath of Northwest’s 7-point loss, both Braden and Rich Wright attributed Northwest’s abysmal offensive performance to an inability to execute. The Lopers did nothing different defensively than the Bearcats expected them to, both Wrights said, Northwest simply didn’t play well.
“No, it was us,” Braden Wright said. “Again, I’ll take full responsibility for it. I wasn’t putting the ball straight on the money. Even if it hits the receiver’s hands, I can always fit the ball just a little bit better. That’s all on us. … We just could not execute.”
“Just lack of execution,” Rich Wright said. “I mean, we dropped a ton of footballs. We looked out of sync. We just — we have to play a lot better if we’re going to be a playoff-caliber team.”
The early part of the second half followed a similar script as the first for Northwest. The Lopers opened the second half with the 75-yard drive that put them up 21-0, one that served as an exclamation point on Kearney’s first-half performance.
For the first time in the game, though, Northwest responded. Facing a 21-point deficit, Northwest’s offense engineered a 2-minute, 10-second scoring drive, capped off by a 13-yard touchdown run from Braden Wright. The score brought Northwest back within two-scores of Kearney and breathed life into the legion of Bearcat fans filling the visitor’s section at Cope Stadium.
Northwest followed the drive up with a quick stop and a quicker score. The Bearcats forced a Kearney punt and Braden Wright found junior wideout Imoni Donadelle for a 38-yard score two plays later. Northwest pulled within 7 of the Lopers. The score wouldn’t be any closer for the remainder of the game.
“I talked all week that this was gonna be a game and that we needed to respect the heck out of Kearney,” Rich Wright said. “And I just felt like, from an execution standpoint, we made way too many mistakes. … I was proud of our kids for fighting back, but it was too little too late.”
The Lopers and Bearcats traded field-goal drives in the game’s final quarter, leaving Northwest’s offense with a 24-17 deficit and three-and-a-half minutes to operate. The Bearcats promptly ran the ball on two consecutive plays, leaving Braden Wright a third-and-five that the quarterback converted via a 14-yard pass to sophomore wideout LaTroy Harper.
Reeling, but with a new set of downs, the Bearcats had hope.
“I felt like we were gonna score,” Rich Wright said.
As the clock ticked on, hope went with it.
A sack allowed on Braden Wright. A dropped pass by senior running back Justin Rankin. A Braden Wright fumble recovered by Kearney. The clock read 1:47, but hope had run out. The game was effectively over.
“I was just trying to make something happen,” Braden Wright said. “I stepped up into the pocket and I kind of ran into one of my own guys … poor ball security by me. That play is 100% my fault.”
Though Northwest’s first loss of the season doesn’t reside entirely upon its quarterback's shoulders, the Bearcats did, for the most part, beat themselves.
The offense gifted the Lopers four turnovers and accumulated less than 260 yards. The defense allowed 228 rushing yards on 60 attempts. The unit couldn’t stay off the field — the Lopers held the ball for just under 42 minutes in the game. Northwest’s time of possession sat at 18 minutes.
Rich and Braden Wright mentioned the Bearcats’ execution a combined six times in the aftermath of a game that was defined by a lack of it. The team trekked more than 200 miles north seeking to remain undefeated and headed back to Maryville, Missouri, with a loss in hand that, in retrospect, seemed avoidable.
The Bearcats are not undefeated anymore. They won’t be the No. 7-ranked team in the country when updated polls come out Oct. 21. They no longer sit atop the MIAA standings. They no longer control their own fate in the conference, and they’ve left postseason particulars to chance.
They entered the season and the matchup with a game plan. They simply failed to execute.
“Today was a big kind of wake-up call, I guess,” Braden Wright said. “I mean, it was something we already knew, but you can’t take anyone in this conference lightly."