Northwest football’s season-opening matchup with Missouri Western Sept. 5 left the Bearcats with questions to answer, mistakes to correct, successes worth noting and, perhaps most importantly, a 1-0 record.
The No. 7 Bearcats took care of business at Spratt Memorial Stadium in St. Joseph, Missouri, last week, though they did so in an uneven fashion. The defense scored 14 points on turnovers but allowed more than 30 points. The offense lacked rhythm in the first half but settled late, engineering a fourth-quarter comeback against the Griffons and securing a 45-35 victory.
Now, with a Week 1 victory in hand, Northwest is looking to build as it inches toward its home-opening matchup with Washburn (1-0) Sept. 14 at Bearcat Stadium.
Despite the 10-point victory over Western, Rich Wright and the Bearcats were overall displeased with Northwest’s showing in St. Joseph.
The win, Rich Wright said, came with doses of both good and bad. Wright complimented his defense’s first-half efforts and addressed a need for depth and improved tackling. He was impressed with the offense’s resilience but was underwhelmed with the unit’s balance and rhythm. He called Northwest’s kick-off coverage both “abysmal” and “terrible” within five seconds.
“I was getting ready to use a different word,” Rich Wright said. “We’re addressing that as we speak. I thought (senior kicker) Parker (Sampson) kicked the ball well as far as placement, but I was not happy with our coverage team at all.”
For Northwest, the Week 1 effort highlighted inconsistencies to correct and strong performances to build on. Rich Wright admitted the Bearcats “made too many mistakes” in their season opener, mistakes the team intends on addressing ahead of its matchup with the Ichabods, who scored a 49-27 win over Lincoln Sept. 5.
In some ways, the upcoming matchup with Washburn will provide increased pressure for the Bearcats. With a week’s worth of film and a chance to put the MIAA on notice, the Ichabods figure to come as prepared as possible, something Rich Wright said Northwest is used to from across the conference.
But the Bearcats aren’t overly preoccupied with Washburn. When the pressure turned on in St. Joseph, Northwest’s offense responded with a lead-taking drive and the defense didn’t allow a point for the remainder of the game. Northwest isn’t focused on the Ichabods — it’s focused on improvement.
“It’s really just one game at a time,” Rich Wright said. “I don’t concern myself with how the other team plays because ultimately I don’t control it. What I do control is how we execute in all three phases. So we’ve got to put the lens back on us and worry about fixing the things we didn’t do well in Week 1 and try and make sure those are remedied in Week 2.”
Ultimately, Rich Wright said, the Bearcats will control their own fate against Washburn. He expects a focus on self-improvement to yield a good result.
“I think if we take that approach,” Wright said, “we’re going to be fine.”
Northwest doesn’t lose to Washburn often; the team is 31-6 against the Ichabods in the all-time series. The Bearcats haven’t lost to Washburn since 2005, beating 18th-year coach Craig Schurig and company in 14 consecutive contests — the latest of which came in Week 2 of last season, a 31-17 Northwest victory in that doubled as a sort of coming-out party for sophomore quarterback Braden Wright.
Then just a redshirt freshman starting his second career game at the collegiate level, Braden Wright exploded for 351 all-purpose yards while rushing for two touchdowns and passing for another in Northwest’s Week 2 victory at Yager Stadium in Topeka, Kansas, last year. The performance earned Braden Wright his first MIAA Player of the Week award.
Braden Wright said he’s looking forward to once again facing the team that helped him put the conference on notice. But the reigning MIAA Freshman of the Year is focused on the here and now.
“Last year’s performance isn’t going to win us a football game this year,” Wright said. “We’ve got to go out and write kind of a new chapter against Washburn. A lot of things are different. I’ve got a different role in the offense this year being more of a leader. So I just have to be ready, and I’ve got to play better than I did last week, that’s for sure.”
The sophomore seems focused on preparing to do so. Ahead of Northwest Athletics’ weekly Pizza Ranch media luncheon, as athletes and coaches representing Northwest’s fall sports talked amongst themselves and ate selections from Pizza Ranch’s buffet, Braden Wright sat alone at a center table, waiting on his coach’s arrival, watching film on his phone.
When it was his turn to address the media, Braden Wright raved about the talents of his teammates, including senior transfer running back Justin Rankin, who rushed for 130 yards on 20 carries in his Northwest debut against Western and who Braden Wright called “the ultimate bailout.” Braden Wright noted the depth of his team and said Northwest needed to be better prepared this week. He never mentioned himself, except to call himself out.
“The defense almost single-handedly got us a lead right there to start the game (against Western),” Braden Wright said. “It kind of went away because (the offense) couldn’t get anything going. But that was great to see everyone fight back like that.”
The Bearcats will have a chance to iron out their Week 1 inconsistencies when they play host to Washburn Sept. 14. Northwest will benefit from the return of a few injured defensive starters. Senior defensive back Chama Pierre, who Rich Wright said was thought to have torn his ACL in St. Joseph, didn’t. He’s expected to play against Washburn.
Additionally, junior defensive back J’Ravien Anderson, who was held out for much of the second half against Western, will play, Rich Wright said. Senior safety Jacob Gassman’s status is questionable for the contest with a hamstring injury.
Even without Pierre, Anderson and Gassman for much of the fourth quarter at Spratt Stadium, the Bearcats buckled down. The offense settled and engineered a 4-point comeback and the defense allowed -15 yards after Western took a 35-31 lead with 12:38 left in the game. Still, the Bearcats expect to be better.
Northwest expects to see the biggest uptick in improvement all season between Weeks 1 and 2, Rich Wright said. He said the gains Northwest is able to make this week will indicate where the team’s ceiling might lie as the season progresses. He expects improvement and consistency in a physical conference matchup. Perhaps above all, Rich Wright expects Northwest to be just fine.
“It’s typical MIAA (football),” Rich Wright said. “Here we go.”