NW Football - Zach Howard 9-2-21

Northwest football junior defensive end Zach Howard does his signature celebration in the aftermath of a sack during the fourth quarter of the Bearcats' 15-7 win against Fort Hays Sept. 2 in Hays, Kansas. Howard played despite an ankle injury a week prior to the matchup.

Northwest football was less than 72 hours out from a Week 1 win against Fort Hays when the Bearcats found out Lincoln, their Week 2 opponent, had to cancel due to COVID-19 protocols.

Fifth-year coach Rich Wright and company spun the week off into something positive, though, and the No. 3 Bearcats (1-0) are now readying for their second straight road game to start the season, a Week 3 matchup against longtime MIAA rival Central Missouri (0-2) at Bud Walton Stadium in Warrensburg, Missouri.

“Being able to just go against the scout team and be able to see their looks for a few more days is — it’s always going to be favoring us here,” senior offensive tackle Tanner Owens said Sept. 14 at the Northwest Athletics Media Luncheon.

“The biggest challenge has been — so you went a year where we didn’t play, had the start of the season and got to play, everybody’s ready to rock and roll, then didn’t get to play,” Wright said. “Last week was a little more difficult, as far as just trying to get everybody locked back into what we were doing, but once we did, I felt like everybody did a good job with it.”

Before the ’Cats will hit the road to take on the Mules, the impromptu Bye Week allowed them to reassure some things on both sides of the ball.

For the offense — led by first-year offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy — it gave extra time to reinforce the line. In the first half against Fort Hays, Northwest’s offensive line allowed three sacks and a single pressure on its own quarterback.

“We’ve got a long ways to go upfront,” Owens said. “Upfront, we have to be way more physical than we were. Our goal on the offensive line is to be the most physical offensive line — I do not think we showed that Week 1. … All five of us upfront got a long way to go.”

In the second half against Hays, the line didn’t allow a single sack or quarterback pressure. And aside from their first-half hiccups in the passing game, the offensive line aided senior running back Al McKeller to one of the more notable rushing performances from a Northwest player in the last decade.

In his Bearcat debut after transferring into the program from the University of Indianapolis, McKeller had 161 yards rushing and a touchdown on 28 carries, the most rushing attempts in a single game since James Franklin had as many against, of course, Central Missouri in October 2011.

“Well, when you’re the defensive coordinator, you get to stand on the sideline and drink a lot of gatorade when he’s running that many times,” Wright said. “It just adds a different dimension. He’s a really good back.”

“He’s a special player,” Owens said. “There’s hardly one tackle that’s going to break him down. As an offensive line guy, you love to see that. … If you make somewhat of a hole for that guy, he’s going to do something with it.”

Central’s defense, Owens said, presents a front that’s similar to what the Bearcats saw in Week 1. Fort Hays showed Northwest’s offense numerous looks, including different pre-snap movements, followed by post-snap stunts.

Owens, though, is expecting to see the efforts of the offensive line that were featured in the latter 30 minutes of the game against Hays.

“They move quite a bit. With that movement, they will move themselves in the wrong way,” Owens said. “As long as us big guys upfront do our jobs, stay on track and do what we’ve been taught, everything will work out.”

Wright, who calls Northwest’s defensive plays along with his regular head-coaching duties, is hoping to see his defensive front have its usual impact on the game, pressuring the quarterback and shutting down the opposition’s rushing attack.

The Bearcats’ defense was successful in doing more of the latter than the former against Fort Hays, only recording a single sack, yet holding the Tigers to 55 yards rushing for the entirety of the contest.

“Defensively, I thought we played against the rush really well,” Wright said. “But we need to be able to do a better job defending explosive plays.”

The Bearcats aren’t quite sure what explosive plays to watch out for against Central. Neither are the Mules.

During the second quarter of a 19-point loss to Washburn in Week 2, Central senior quarterback Kyle Bradley was benched after throwing an interception — his third in six quarters of play. Mules coach Jim Svoboda elected to replace Bradley with junior quarterback Logan Twehous, who led Central’s offense to the end zone on his first drive of the season.

“We’re gonna, obviously, prepare for both,” Wright said. “Anytime a coach makes the decision to do that in the middle of a football game, he’s telling me that, ‘All cards are on the table.’ So, we’re going to prepare as if we’re going to play against both.”

Central’s offensive scheme, Wright said, shouldn’t change with either of the quarterbacks in. He’s expecting Svoboda’s offensive attack to present similar challenges as it has in the past, but with less fire power.

Brook Bolles, who was Central’s first-team All-MIAA quarterback in 2019, led the Mules to a win in the first round of the postseason against UIndy and now-Northwest running back McKeller before a second-round loss to Ferris State.

Shae Wyatt, who was Bolles’ No. 1 receiver and also a first-team All-MIAA selection in 2019, transferred to Tulane after the COVID-19 pandemic canceled Division II’s 2020 season.

Central’s offense, other than it’s schematics, has almost no resemblance to when Northwest beat the Mules 45-23 at Bearcat Stadium during the last week of the regular season in 2019.

“It looks like a bunch of new guys playing in the system,” Wright said. “It’s gonna take them some time to figure that piece of it out. The backs are back, a couple of the offensive linemen, but it’s just new pieces in a brand new year.”

The Mules, who were tabbed as fourth in the MIAA’s Preseason Coaches Poll, have started the season with two consecutive losses — a vast difference from the Central team that went 10-1 and split the MIAA title with Northwest in 2019.

But regardless of Central’s atypical record throughout the first two weeks of the season, Wright is expecting it to be the same rivalry that it always has been between the two founding members of the MIAA.

“It’s Central versus Northwest — it’s a big game, always has been,” Wright said. “I think we’re gonna get their best shot.”

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