There was Cross Holmes, standing on the left hash at the 27-yard line toward the north end zone of Bearcat Stadium.
Pitt State’s freshman kicker, with his weight leaning on his left foot and perhaps the weight of the game resting on his right, had a chance to make a 44-yard field goal to give the Gorillas a 22-20 lead over No. 2 Northwest with 57 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Then the ball was snapped.
“My thought process was, ‘We’ve gotta block this kick,’” said Northwest senior linebacker Jackson Barnes, who was on the field for the aforementioned play. “I mean, there’s, what, 50 seconds left in the game? So, there’s no way they can make this kick, because we don’t want to put our offense in that position.”
There were roughly two seconds between the ball leaving Holmes’ right foot and the officials under the north goal post using their hands to notify each one of the 6,513 spectators in attendance whether the kick was good or not.
Within those two seconds were Pitt’s chances of defeating Northwest for the first time since October 2017. Within those two seconds were the Bearcats’ chances of staying undefeated for another week. Within those two seconds were the hopes of the winning team jumping to first place in the MIAA.
And at the end of those two seconds, Holmes’ kick sailed wide left, and Northwest escaped with a 20-19 win against Pitt Saturday afternoon.
“This is Pitt State-Northwest Missouri State; this is what this game is supposed to be,” Northwest football coach Rich Wright said. “It’s always a tough, tough matchup. It’s always two very proud programs, with a lot of tradition and a lot of history, going at it.”
Despite defending a lead for the game’s final 5 minutes and 15 seconds, the Bearcats (5-0) spent most of the day trying to find one.
Trailing 19-13, Northwest’s offense set up on its own 21-yard line with a little under 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. The possession came about after Holmes missed his first field goal of the day — a 38-yard attempt from that same left hash — which would’ve put the Gorillas (4-2) up 22-13.
To that point in the game, Northwest junior quarterback Mike Hohensee and the rest of the offense hadn’t been able to muster much of anything against Pitt’s stifling defense.
But after marching down into the red zone, facing a third-and-goal from Pitt’s 8-yard line, Hohensee received the snap in shotgun formation and immediately rolled to his right.
There, he found senior wideout Kaden Davis, who ran a route toward the sideline and caught Hohensee’s pass at the 3-yard line. And after meeting a defender at the goal line, Davis lunged toward the pylon for the go-ahead, soon-to-be-game-winning touchdown that gave Northwest the 20-19 lead it eventually clung to.
“I’ll just say this: When the game’s on the line, my teammates can count on me; I know I can count on them,” said Davis, who finished with two catches for 41 yards receiving and two touchdowns.
“He’s just one of those quiet guys,” Wright said of Davis. “But every time a quarterback goes to him, he makes something happen, and that was a tough play down on the goal line. I mean, that could’ve gone either way. He saved, probably, what little bit of the hair I have left on my head by getting it in the end zone and not having to go for it on fourth down.”
Although Davis’ heroics capped off a 10-play, 79-yard drive that seemed to come to the ’Cats with ease, the first two and a half quarters of the game didn’t go the same way. The Bearcats’ offense was anemic for the first half, and that was in part why the No. 2 team in the country faced a 13-0 deficit at halftime.
Pitt scored on the opening drive of the game when sophomore quarterback Mak Sexton connected with sophomore tight end Kaizer Newell for a 20-yard touchdown. The Gorillas followed that with two field goals from Holmes — one from 27 yards away and a 53-yard kick that split the uprights as time expired in the first half.
“I challenged every kid in that locker room,” Wright said. “I said, ‘We’ll find out a lot about this football team in the next 30 minutes. This is a four-round fight. It’s not a two-round fight; it’s a four-round fight. We didn’t get knocked out in the first two rounds.’”
Northwest’s offensive mishaps continued in the second half, though, and it was apparent rather quickly.
The Bearcats received the second-half kickoff and took over on their own 25. On the first play of the drive, a pass from Hohensee was tipped into the air and intercepted by Pitt redshirt freshman linebacker Alex Gaskill.
“We could’ve folded the tents right there — they’ve got the ball on our 25-yard line,” Wright said. “That’s the nice part of being here for 19 years; I’ve watched those games over and over and over again. If you keep battling, oftentimes, good things are going to happen.”
The Bearcats kept battling, and, of course, good things did eventually happen.
They held Pitt to a field goal, which was Holmes’ last successful try of the day and the Gorillas final points.
The Gorillas’ dominance, Wright said, was because of the style of offense they presented, which differed from what the defensive-minded coach anticipated.
It was a balanced attack for Pitt, one that featured wideout Jalen Martin — a transfer from Iowa State — finishing with 10 catches for 127 yards and a backfield that rushed for 110 yards.
“Pitt came out — and credit to their coaching staff — did a lot of things that they hadn’t shown on film,” Wright said. “We pride ourselves on preparing for what we see. They gave us a lot of things in those first two series that we hadn’t seen.”
Still, the Bearcats never thought they were out of it.
After all of the offensive miscues, their first score of the game happened with 53 seconds left in the third quarter, when Hohensee connected with freshman running back Jadon Brady for a 23-yard, catch-and-run touchdown.
“When we were down, I don’t think any — you could look in each other’s eyes and could tell no one thought we were out of the game,” Hohensee said. “We all just knew we had to fall back on what we had been taught throughout the week, and we did it, and it showed.”
Hohensee finished the game 17-of-23 with 199 yards passing, two touchdowns and two interceptions, but the quarterback won’t take much away from the box score, and he knows the rest of the team won’t either.
Instead, they’ll reminisce on the win, a triumph the Bearcats used to remain the lone unscathed team in the MIAA, and a victory they’ll carry with them throughout the rest of the season.
“You need to be challenged like this, because as you get later in the season, as you get into the playoffs, these are the types of games you have to play in and have to win,” Wright said. “So, to learn and still win a football game, I think is tremendously important and very helpful moving forward.”