NW FB

Northwest football junior defensive tackle Elijah Green (90) celebrates with fellow members of the defensive line following a sack during the Bearcats' 50-21 win against Central Washington Nov. 20 in Bearcat Stadium.

There aren’t too many things that Northwest football coach Rich Wright enjoys more than football and Thanksgiving. That list gets even shorter when the two coincide.

It’s one of his favorite times of the year — when the Bearcats prolong their season enough to be able to prepare for a game during the week of Thanksgiving — and Northwest will be one of only 16 Division II football programs that will get to experience that in 2021.

In the aftermath of a 50-21 win over Central Washington in the first round Nov. 20 in Bearcat Stadium, Wright was excited his team was able to keep its season alive for at least one more week, mentioning to senior Al McKeller that he was excited to have turkey alongside the running back.

But Wright knew he couldn’t fast forward to the day when he could relive some of his childhood memories — waking up and immediately watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade before turning the channel to watch NFL pregame shows, a routine that was followed with a game of catch outside and food afterward. He had a second-round game with Harding to get ready for, a matchup that’s accompanied by a week of preparation that makes Wright feel the complete opposite compared to how he typically would during the Thanksgiving season.

“It’s never my favorite week of the year, nor is it anybody else’s,” Wright said about scheming for Harding following the win over Central Washington. “Say a prayer for my wife and two children; I’m absolutely miserable to be around. … If there’s one good thing about the week, it’s that I get to have Thanksgiving with the guys. Otherwise, I’m gonna be miserable until after the game is over.”

And that wasn’t just some hyperbolic statement to proclaim how difficult it is to plan for the Bisons’ nation-best rushing offense. It was still true three days later when Wright addressed a group of reporters at the Northwest Athletics Media Luncheon Nov. 23.

“My wife told me on Sunday that if I wanted to take the air mattress to the office, she would be OK with that,” Wright said Tuesday afternoon. “It’s a grind. It’s trying to prepare for something that we don’t see every year. … (Harding’s run game) is just completely different than anything you see. … We have to be on point to be effective on Saturday.”

Wright’s heightened miserability comes from having to create a defensive scheme strong enough to propel the third-seeded Bearcats (10-1) past the second-seeded Bisons (11-1) in the Super Region III semifinals.

Harding will enter the Week 12 matchup on the heels of a 30-14 win over Northwest’s MIAA foe Washburn, an outing in which the Bisons rushed the ball a season-high 90 times. It was a performance that personified their identity, one that features senior fullback Cole Chancey, who had a school-record 41 carries for 176 yards rushing and a score, and who is the second-best rusher in the country with a career total of 5,007 yards.

Harding, similar to Army’s football program, presents a triple option flexbone offense to opposing defenses, a style that carries its own brand of physicality, and a style that differs from what most spectators see on Saturdays.

“As a defensive coordinator, there’s so much spread in college football right now; it’s 11 personnel, it’s 12 personnel,” Wright said. “So literally, for me a lot of the time, I’ll turn the page, tweak a few things and say, ‘OK, here we go.’ This is totally different. To provide some perspective for you, Monday for us is usually a helmet-short, tempo practice. … Monday we went live to the ground.”

“Just like (Wright) said, it’s different,” Northwest junior defensive lineman Zach Howard said. “The offensive line is good at blocking, but the way they run block is different than the way everybody else run blocks. Their backs get downhill quicker than any other back we’ve seen.”

That’s the difficult part. The Bearcats, Wright said, don’t have anything to compare Harding’s offense to. There isn’t a team on Northwest’s conference-only regular-season schedule that presents as much of a challenge as Wright expects the Bisons to.

But the ’Cats will be up for the challenge, mostly because they have been all season. Stopping the run is their defensive philosophy, and they’ve shown that by limiting opposing offenses to a nation-best 40.4 yards rushing per game.

The Bisons have thrown the ball a meager 40 times throughout their first 12 games of the season. That’s an area they’re unfamiliar in, and that’s exactly why Wright hopes Howard and the rest of Northwest’s defense can force Harding to be one-dimensional in a way it hasn’t had to be all season.

“It’s just trying to get them behind schedule. That can be with an errant pitch, that can be on an offensive penalty, that can be a good play by us,” Wright said. “If they get to third-and-3 or third-and-4 or less, everything tilts toward them. Because not only are they at a higher probability of success on third down, if it’s fourth-and-short, they’re going. Anything fourth-and-4 or less is fair game; I don’t care where it is on the field.”

It isn’t all about Northwest’s defense. And as much as Wright is focused on slowing down Harding’s rushing attack, he knows the Bisons will have to try to create a plan that’ll work toward slowing down McKeller, one of 36 nominees for the Harlon Hill Trophy, which is awarded to the most valuable player of Division II.

This is McKeller’s first year at Northwest after transferring from the University of Indianapolis, and Wright got an early idea of what type of player the running back was after the two talked prior to McKeller landing in Maryville.

“I remember when I first had him here, I said, ‘Al, it gets cold here in late November and early December,’” Wright said. “He goes, ‘That’s good, because it’s no fun to tackle me when it’s cold outside.’”

He’s a bruising back, one who’s the lone rusher ahead of Chancey in career rushing yards with 5,025. McKeller kept his end of the bargain during that preseason conversation with Wright, too, seemingly getting better with each week the season goes on.

McKeller has used his farewell campaign to carry the ball 247 times for 1,467 yards and 17 touchdowns. But perhaps no stretch this season has been more impressive than his last four games, where he’s taken 96 carries and turned those into 530 yards rushing and 12 scores.

“A lot of people get broken down over the course of a football game. Well, he’s doing, metaphorically, the same thing over the course of the season, is that he’s not breaking down — he’s getting better as the season goes along,” Wright said.

If history is any tell, McKeller coupled with Wright’s defensive scheme should punch Northwest’s ticket into the national quarterfinals.

Should.

The Bearcats are winners of each one of the prior three meetings with Harding, including a 7-6 triumph during a defensive showdown in the first round of the 2019 postseason. Northwest scored on the game’s opening drive before never finding the end zone again. The Bisons scored on the game’s final drive before being stuffed in the backfield on a would’ve-been game-winning 2-point conversion.

Wright doesn’t care about that, though. He doesn’t really revel in what was. He’s more so concerned about what will be this Saturday, or at least what he wants it to be. He’s focused on what could be if his team is able to make the eight-hour trip back to Maryville with a win in its possession. But he knows it won’t be easy.

“This will be the best Harding team that we’ve seen,” Wright said. “I don’t have the same guys, nor do they. It’s a brand new challenge and a brand new deal. I think everybody just assumes because we’ve had success that it’s gonna equate to success — it doesn’t.”

But despite everything the fifth-year coach and his team will go through this week while trying to eventually pull out a win on Saturday — the long nights and earlier mornings, the excruciatingly detailed scheme, the longing to perfectly execute each assignment — the ’Cats will enjoy their time together before hitting the road on Thursday.

Wright’s been at Northwest since arriving in Maryville as a defensive line coach and special teams coordinator in 2004, and he’s been hosting players at his home for as long as he can remember. That’s why last year, when COVID-19 effectively canceled the Division II season, he wasn’t quite sure what to do.

That’ll be different this year. And for that, the Bearcats are thankful.

“These guys are my family, and I don’t know anything else,” Wright said. “During the COVID year, when it was just my wife and daughters, I was like, ‘What the heck am I supposed to do today?’ Because I’m used to a house full of people. … It’s just kind of cool to have all of those guys out there on Thanksgiving morning and be able to be together as a family.”

“There’s not a lot of bad energy on Thursday on Thanksgiving, even if it is an option week,” Howard said through a laugh. “Thanksgiving is Thanksgiving, and anytime you can do it with your extended family is really fun.”

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