On the heels of a shaky showing Oct. 5 in Emporia, Kansas, Northwest football is looking forward while coming to grips with the reality of the MIAA.
The No. 7 Bearcats (5-0) are marching toward a matchup with No. 13 Pittsburg State (5-0), one of two other remaining undefeated teams in the MIAA. And they’re doing so in the aftermath of a somewhat narrow escape.
Northwest squared off with Emporia State (2-3) in Week 5 and walked away with a 34-23 win despite trailing the Hornets 17-12 at halftime. After picking apart Central Oklahoma for four quarters Sept. 28, demolishing the Bronchos for a 59-10 win in Week 4, the Bearcats played a closer game against a less formidable opponent.
The Hornets gave the Bearcats their best shot, Northwest coach Rich Wright said. Wright expects Pitt State to do the same. This is the actuality of the MIAA.
“What I don’t think our younger kids have an understanding of yet is that when you wear green in this conference, you’re going to get everyone’s best shot,” Wright said. “With the history of Northwest Missouri and Emporia State in the playoffs and things like that, I mean, I knew they were going to throw everything but the kitchen sink at us. And they kind of tried.”
The Bearcats, Wright said, didn’t play to their own standard. But they left Kansas with a victory in hand. Wright cares less about the particulars of the win and more about the win itself.
“Let’s face it, there’s going to be days — and I don’t care what sport you play — one side or the other isn’t gonna play as well,” Wright said. “I think the mark of a good football team is that you figure out a way to ultimately get it done.”
The performance in Emporia is in the rearview. What lies ahead is Northwest’s toughest test of the season thus far, one set to transpire in the largest venue the team will play in.
Northwest’s upcoming Oct. 12 Fall Classic matchup with Pitt State at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri, is the latest in a line of anticipated matchups between the Bearcats and Gorillas.
The territory is both familiar and unfamiliar for both Northwest and Pitt State. Arrowhead, home of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, played host to 12 matchups between the two teams from 2002-2013, providing a historical backdrop for the venue that no active player on either roster was a part of.
Northwest owns a 9-3 advantage over Pitt State in Kansas City, the last win coming in 2013 while Wright still served as defensive coordinator. The Bearcats took a break from the Fall Classic, then squared off with Central Missouri at Arrowhead in 2016 and 2017, the latter of which marked the last time Northwest played at the stadium.
Northwest’s last appearance at Arrowhead came in Wright’s first year at the helm and ended in dramatic fashion. Then-quarterback Zach Martin led the No. 1 Bearcats to a comeback win via a last-second touchdown drive. The Bearcats have played in historic games at Arrowhead, Wright said. He’s ready to pick up where the team left off.
“I’ve (coached) in a lot of those cardiac games at Arrowhead,” Wright said. “Love it. Absolutely love it. To the kids on our football team — most of them grew up in the midwest, a lot of them are Chiefs fans — it’s a really cool deal. … It’s a great venue, it’s always loud inside that stadium … it’s a fun, big-time atmosphere.”
Sophomore defensive tackle Zach Howard is one of those players Wright mentioned. A native of Bolivar, Missouri, Howard grew up rooting for the Chiefs. The opportunity to play at Arrowhead is something he’s looking forward to.
“I’ve never been inside an NFL stadium, let alone to Arrowhead,” Howard said. “So this is going to be an experience for me.”
The venue, of course, is big, but the challenge ahead for Northwest may be bigger. The stakes heighten every week, Wright said. This is Northwest’s most important game yet.
The Week 6 showdown will pit two of the nation’s highest-scoring offenses against one another. Northwest sits at No. 5 in the country in the category, averaging 48.4 points per contest, while Pitt State comes in at No. 6, scoring 47 points per game.
In a conference that Northwest has historically dominated, Pitt State is one of the few teams that has traditionally rivaled Northwest. The Bearcats own a narrow 27-25 lead over Pitt State in the all-time series. The two teams have combined for 29 conference or co-conference titles since 1989.
Wright said the Bearcats’ annual matchup with the Gorillas has grown into Northwest’s fiercest rivalry in his time with the program.
“I’ve lost to Pittsburg State more than I’ve lost to any other team since 2004,” Wright said. “Usually when we play them, the stakes are pretty high. … It’s always two teams that are contending for a conference championship; it’s always two teams that are looking forward to trying to get to the postseason and ultimately win a national championship.”
While the season is just reaching its midway point, the upcoming game carries with it playoff implications. The two teams, grouped with Central Missouri (5-0) atop the MIAA standings, know that all three teams won’t finish undefeated, and it’s unlikely all three teams will appear in the postseason.
Both the Gorillas and Bearcats have trekked their way to 5-0 on the backs of similar schedules. They’ve earned victories over middle-of-the-road teams like Central Oklahoma and Emporia State, while mowing over conference bottom-feeders.
Northwest scored a blowout win over Missouri Southern (1-4), while Pitt State has found relatively easy wins in matchups with Lincoln (0-5) and Northeastern State (0-5). The Bearcats and Gorillas have both remained undefeated in-part because they’ve avoided each other — until now.
“We’re going to go play at Arrowhead Stadium and there’s gonna be a ton of people there,” Wright said. “Is it a big game? Obviously it’s a big game. It’s that next step in the test. … As you go throughout your season, and I don’t care what week it is, the games get bigger and bigger because the stakes get higher and higher.”
Entering the Week 6 matchup, the stakes are as high as they have been all season and the lowest they’ll be for the remainder of the year. Pitt State, with its unyielding defense and complex, flexible offensive system, will serve as both a challenge and a litmus test for Northwest’s progress this season.
After dominating Central Oklahoma in Week 4 and struggling with Emporia in Week 5, Wright said he needs the Bearcats to play to their capabilities against the Gorillas at Arrowhead.
“There is nothing else,” Wright said. “I need your best. I need you to do your job. I need you to do your one-eleventh — I don’t need anything more, I don’t need anything less. … I talk to our guys all the time; ‘This is why you come to Northwest Missouri State, to take these tests.’ Our guys don’t have to do anything special. … If we just play our game the way we’re capable of, then I’ll put us up against anyone.”