For the first time since 2016, and just the fourth time this decade, Northwest football will travel nearly 200 miles to Emporia, Kansas, to take on Emporia State Oct. 5.
Historically, the matchup has been kind to the No. 7 Bearcats (4-0). They haven’t lost to the Hornets (2-2) since Oct. 1, 1994, a streak that includes 26 consecutive wins for Northwest in almost exactly 25 years. The Bearcats haven’t lost a game in Emporia since 1965. The 26-game streak is older than any player on Northwest’s roster. The road winning streak is older than coach Rich Wright.
Heading to Emporia this weekend, the Bearcats are riding the coattails of a historic win-streak, but it’s their play of late that seems to matters more to Wright. It, too, has been dynamic. Through four games this season, Northwest’s defense has shown improvement, its special teams has been dynamic, and its offense has been unflinching.
The result, of course, has been four wins for Northwest. The Bearcats possess the No. 3 scoring offense in the nation, averaging 52.0 points per game thus far. And after winning their first game by 10 points, the Bearcats have settled on both sides of the ball, increasing their average margin of victory to 26.25 points per contest on the heels of a 59-10 blowout win over Central Oklahoma Sept. 29.
After the lopsided victory over the Bronchos and as they march toward their Week 5 matchup with Emporia, the Bearcats should be confident. But Wright wouldn’t use that word, he said. His focus this week for Northwest is a search for consistency.
“For me, it’s great to play well once,” Wright said. “One of the things I tell (the team) all the time is that you either get better or you get worse, but you don’t stay the same. And so, we’ve got to push the envelope as we progress through the season because the challenges are only gonna get bigger.”
Through four games this season, the Bearcats have improved in the box score and via the eye test each week.
A shaky Week 1 showing in St. Joseph led to a 45-35 comeback win over Missouri Western Sept. 5. After trailing Washburn three times in Week 2, Northwest pulled away for a 38-17 victory at Bearcat Stadium Sept. 14. Since then, the Bearcats’ play has been unrivaled.
Northwest has powered its way through two lopsided victories in the last two weeks, earning the win over Central Oklahoma after cruising to a 66-34 win over Missouri Southern in Joplin Sept. 21. In its last two matchups, the team has averaged 62.5 points per contest while allowing 44 points in both games combined. The Bearcats haven’t trailed since the third quarter of their matchup with Washburn.
Still, Northwest will proceed with caution to Emporia. The season’s first four weeks don’t mean all that much to Wright.
“I want to see: Are we a one-trick pony or are we going to be a good football team?” Wright said. “And I want to see that hunger and that burn starting (Tuesday) in practice, and then going through the week, and then carrying that over into the football game. It’s not about what the score is, it’s not about — it’s about playing well. It’s about playing to our Bearcat standard.”
In the aftermath of the matchup with Central Oklahoma, a game sophomore linebacker Sam Phillips said Northwest had “circled on (its) calendar,” the Bearcats are at somewhat of a crossroads. Last week’s matchup with the Bronchos and next week’s Oct. 12 matchup with Pittsburg State (4-0) are generally bigger games than Northwest’s task at hand in Emporia.
Phillips is unsure if it’s easier to mentally prepare for a game against a competitive rival than it is a matchup with a team like the Hornets.
“I think it could be (easier to get up for Central Oklahoma) because, like I said, we lost last year and that’s obviously not a great feeling, and so you kind of want to avenge that,” Phillips said. “But at the same time, you want to treat every opponent kind of the same. You want to give every opponent your best shot.”
Wright hopes nothing is different. As a coach who has preached consistency to his team for several weeks, he expects to see the Bearcats show the trait this week in practice.
“Football, unlike a lot of other sports — these guys train 365 days and they’re guaranteed 11 games,” Wright said. “If you’re not up to play a football game, then that’s something wrong with you.”
On the surface, Northwest’s upcoming matchup with the Hornets is just another stop in the regular season gantlet that defines the MIAA. When compared to other contests, the one with Emporia seems somewhat insignificant. Wright has been adamant that it isn’t.
Wright said he’s harped on every detail to his team and has brought minute elements into increased focus. In one meeting over the weekend, Wright said he stressed to the team’s seniors the reality of the season, that there are only 12 guaranteed padded practices left in their careers. He said if the seniors want to extend their playing days into the postseason, they have to earn it.
Wright is trying to create a sense of urgency among the Bearcats, he said, one he hopes is on display Oct. 5 in Emporia.
“Right now, we control our own destiny,” Wright said. “I told them on Monday in practice: ‘The win at UCO means nothing if you go down and lay an egg at Emporia State. In the MIAA, you better show up every week.’”