The Northwest football team hadn’t done too much throughout the first two quarters of action during a matchup with Central Washington in the Division II quarterfinals Nov. 28, 2009.
If it weren’t for Chad Kilgore returning an interception 25 yards for a touchdown late in the first quarter, perhaps the ’Cats would’ve been in a bigger hole than the 14-7 halftime deficit they were tasked with surmounting in the second half.
“Mel Tjeerdsma came into the locker room at half and told those guys that they had won 12 games, and at Northwest Missouri State that was firmly average, and if we didn’t change how we were gonna play then we were gonna get beat,” said Rich Wright, a defensive line coach and special teams coordinator at Northwest in 2009. “(Tjeerdsma) doesn’t have a whole lot of — Coach T said words I say all the time, but he doesn’t usually say. … It was about a five-minute speech, and it was phenomenal. It was just what the doctor ordered.”
The Bearcats — behind then-coach Tjeerdsma — used the second half to claw back into that game, eventually taking a 21-14 lead halfway through the third quarter. It was a lead they clung to until Washington scored with six seconds left in the fourth.
That’s when then-senior defensive tackle Tyler Roach used an extended arm to block the game-tying extra point, effectively punching Northwest’s ticket to the semifinals en route to the Bearcats putting the punctuation on that season with the program’s third national title.
Wright’s now in his fifth year as the head coach at Northwest, and he doesn’t want to have to use a season-preserving, Tjeerdsma-like speech to wake his team up at halftime when the Bearcats host Washington for a first-round matchup Nov. 20 at Bearcat Stadium.
Despite being one of three teams in Super Region III with a regular-season resume good enough to earn a first-round home game, the Bearcats (9-1) aren’t overlooking the challenge of facing the non-seeded Wildcats (8-2) in the second ever meeting between the two programs.
“You get to this point — there’s 28 teams left — everybody’s really good,” Wright said Tuesday afternoon at the Northwest Athletics Media Luncheon. “We’re gonna have to play well. … I think that we’re playing at a very high level, and we’ve finally got everybody healthy and clicking on all cylinders. So I’m excited for the challenge.”
Northwest will enter the matchup on the heels of a 35-7 win over MIAA foe Emporia State in Week 11, a triumph that was used to clinch the program’s 31st conference title, including the first outright one of the Wright era.
It was a dominant outing spearheaded by senior running back Al McKeller, who transferred to Northwest after being a two-time candidate for the Harlon Hill Award, and who gashed Emporia’s defense for 169 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 29 carries.
He’s the seventh-best rusher among the ranks of Division II, rushing for an average of 133.7 yards per contest, and Washington third-year coach Chris Fisk knows creating a plan to stop one of the most dominant players the Wildcats will see this season won’t be easy.
“Whether we stop the run and are able to run the ball, that’s gonna drive this football game,” Fisk said over Zoom Wednesday afternoon. “If we can’t stop them from running the football, it’s gonna be a long day in Maryville. If we can’t run the football, it’s gonna be a long day in Maryville.”
Wright knows the Wildcats — members of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference — will try their best to contain McKeller, and so does Northwest senior wideout Imoni Donadelle, who had 19 catches for 445 yards and four touchdowns throughout the Bearcats’ 10-game regular season.
The Bearcats possess the eighth-best offense in the country, putting up an average of 484.2 yards of offense per game. It’s a high-octane attack fueled by a run game that’s been able to muster 234 yards per contest.
Donadelle will be tasked with exposing lapses in the Wildcats’ man-heavy defense when the Bearcats elect to pass, but he doesn’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. He’s up for the challenge.
“Normally, we don’t get too much man (coverage),” Donadelle said Nov. 16. “I feel like a lot of people are gonna try to stack the box since we’ve got Al at running back, so we’ve just gotta take advantage of our matchups outside.”
The defensive-minded Wright has been at work this week, curating a plan designed to slow down a Wildcat offense that’s scored more than 46 points per game this fall, one that’s led by redshirt freshman quarterback Quincy Glasper.
Glasper has been Washington’s starter since injuries forced him into the role. Since he took over in the Wildcats’ 36-14 win over Simon Frasier Sept. 18, Glasper has completed 92-of-143 passes for 1,280 yards and 17 touchdowns. He’s been nearly perfect, too, throwing a pair of interceptions, both of which came during a 45-14 win over Western Oregon Oct. 9.
Wright got to work immediately following the NCAA Division II Selection Show Sunday evening, when it was revealed what the Bearcats’ first-round matchup would be. He’s had to prepare to face some of the best talent in the country in the MIAA, including Harlon Hill candidate T.J. Davis from Nebraska-Kearney. But an unfamiliar opponent presents its own set of challenges.
“It’s really grinding,” Wright said of the preparation. “Sunday night, when we found out, I got home at 2:30 in the morning. (Monday) night I was home at 1 o’clock in the morning and back in the complex at 5:30 (Wednesday) morning. We’re gonna maximize the amount of hours that we have.”
“We’ll create several plans to play against this football team. I usually try to have — usually I get to about ‘J’ in the alphabet, as far as plans as to what we’re gonna do,” Wright said. “If ‘A’ works then we’ll stick with ‘A,’ but we’ll get to ‘J’ if we have to.”
It isn’t just an unfamiliar opponent but an out-of-conference matchup that differs from Northwest’s conference-only regular season. The Wildcats’ style of football will be different than anything the Bearcats have seen to this point.
“I won’t draw any comparison, because it’s almost impossible. When you have no common opponents, and you’re watching stuff on film, it’s hard to make that correlation,” Wright said. “They get rid of the ball in a hurry. So your Emporias, your (Missouri) Southerns, your quicker tempo, great screen game. … Better run game than what you think; their back is tough.”
It isn’t the quarterfinals this time around. Neither team is riding the high of two consecutive postseason wins. The winner won’t be one of four remaining teams left on the prowl for the pinnacle of Division II football.
The importance now, though, is as high as ever, with one team soon to have its season ended and the other soon to have its season live on for at least one more week.
Fisk and the Wildcats don’t see a reason their climb toward the top has to stop in Maryville.
“There’s power in being in that underdog position,” Fisk said. “I was walking around, and I heard somebody say, ‘Why not us?’ … I’ve challenged the team on this, ‘Why not us?’ because we work as hard as they do … so why not us?”
The Bearcats are used to being the favorites; it’s something they’ve become accustomed to since Tjeerdsma resurrected the program and turned it into a perennial powerhouse starting in 1996. It’s a position Northwest has been in prior to every game this season, and that’s not changing heading into this weekend.
Wright knows that, and he wouldn’t want it any other way.
“There’s a difference between being the team that’s up-and-coming and being the team that’s consistently hunted,” Wright said. “When you’ve made the playoffs 17 years in a row, and it’s been an NCAA record every year we do it, we’re gonna get everybody’s best shot. It’s just something we accept and embrace.”