Through six weeks of action, Northwest football has fought through a lot.
The Bearcats have forged four comeback victories in six games, including triumphs over the likes of Pittsburg State and Washburn. They fought through inconsistencies in St. Joseph, Missouri, and Emporia, Kansas. They dominated Central Oklahoma and Missouri Southern in games that were supposed to serve as gut checks.
With more than half the season in the rearview, the No. 7 Bearcats (6-0) remain unblemished. They’ve passed every test laid in front of them thus far, the latest of which came in the form of a 38-17 victory over Pittsburg State (5-1) at Arrowhead Stadium Oct. 12.
On the heels of the win over the previously-undefeated Gorillas, perhaps the most convincing victory of the season for Northwest, the team is staring ahead at what, on paper, is set to be the easiest portion of its schedule. After matching up with Nebraska-Kearney (4-2) Oct. 19, the Bearcats’ next two matchups will come in home contests against Lincoln and Northeastern State, two teams who have combined for an 0-12 record this season.
Still, facing a relative plateau in their regular season gantlet, the Bearcats are refusing to turn on cruise control.
“I look at it week-by-week,” coach Rich Wright said. “I’m gonna tell you right now, I’m more concerned with Kearney’s option attack than I was with Pittsburg State’s. They do a lot of things that cause problems, and so, everyone in my complex is on high alert this week. We have to play a lot better than the last time we made a road trip.”
The Bearcats, who technically hosted Pitt State in the Fall Classic in Kansas City, Missouri, haven’t played as visitors since Week 5 when they earned a win in a back-and-forth game against Emporia State Oct. 5. They allowed the Hornets to strike early then, giving up a touchdown before a full minute and a half had ticked off the game clock. Northwest trailed at halftime in Emporia, something they hadn’t done since Week 2.
Kearney hasn’t beaten Northwest since the Lopers entered the conference seven seasons ago. But these Lopers appear to be different. Rich Wright noted Kearney’s stout run defense and dynamic rushing offense, which leads the MIAA in rushing yards per game, he said. The Lopers average close to 120 more yards rushing per game than Northwest.
Kearney, similar to Pitt State, runs an option-style offense but does so in a less forgiving manner, Rich Wright said. The Lopers utilize two talented quarterbacks, and they tend to force defenses into more solo-tackling situations.
The Lopers’ similarities to Pitt State aren’t tangible enough to benefit Northwest preparation, Rich Wright said. With the stakes perpetually increasing, the Bearcats are readying for a dogfight.
“Each week that you go now, the games become more magnified because, in the second half of the season, you trip up, you get dinged a lot more for it than you do when you mess up early in the season,” Rich Wright said. “This is a big test for us. I want to see how we do this week. … The challenge there is real. If we don’t show up ready to play with our A-game, we will not like the outcome.”
Northwest, of course, will counter with a dynamic offense of its own, a unit that ranks No. 6 in the nation in points per game at 46.7, mostly due to a wide cast of players. The Bearcats have scored in 20 of their 21 trips to the red zone this season, only failing to do so when they took a knee to seal their Week 1 win over Missouri Western in the red zone.
Sophomore quarterback Braden Wright has thrown for 13 touchdowns and rushed for 4. Redshirt freshman quarterback Mike Hohensee has thrown for 4 scores and ran for 3. Senior running back Justin Rankin has caught 2 scores and ran for 4 touchdowns. Junior wideout Imoni Donadelle has accounted for 6 touchdowns in the six games. The list goes on.
“We’ve got good playcalling,” junior offensive lineman Tanner Owen said. “Also, I’d like to think that our offensive line is pretty solid. Braden can make us right, no matter what. And it’s obviously good to have a running back like Justin.”
For Owen, the key to leaving Kearney, Nebraska, with a win Oct. 19 is simple.
“You’ve always got to be able to run the ball,” Owen said “And I’m going to say that every single time being an offensive lineman. Being able to run the ball just opens up everything else. … We’ve just got to be able to shove it down their throat whether they know it’s coming or not.”
For Rich Wright, Kearney poses a bigger threat than most figured the Lopers would at the start of the season. Rich Wright wants Northwest’s defense to hold the Lopers to less than 50 yards rushing — something he said he expects from his defense every week. He wants to see the Bearcats play what a complete game, something he said they’ve only done against Central Oklahoma this season.
As the season moves into the latter half and postseason implications enhance each week, Rich Wright is focused on this team’s ability to do the little things. He’s focused on all 11 players executing every single play. At 6-0, he’s focused on improvement.
The Bearcats can’t hang their hats on a Week 6 win. They’re focused, Rich Wright said, on Nebraska-Kearney.
“Can you consistently play at a high level?” Rich Wright said. “Because here in a few weeks, if we’re blessed enough to get through our schedule and do what we hope we want to do, if you have one great playoff game and then you come back and lay an egg, guess what happens? You’re sitting at home. And so, we have to develop that.”