An NCAA Division II playoff rivalry will be renewed Nov. 17 when Northwest travels to Allendale, Michigan, for a first-round matchup with Grand Valley State.
The two programs met five times in the playoffs between 2005 and 2013, with three matchups for National Championships. Despite being 1-2 in those championship games, the Bearcats (9-2) hold a 3-2 record against the Lakers (10-1) in the playoffs and have won the last three games.
With as much playoff history these two teams have, the Nov. 17 matchup will be the first for the Lakers at home. The three national title games all took place in Florence, Alabama, and the other two games were semifinals played in Maryville.
Despite the history between the two programs, there is not a single player on either team that played in any of those games. Coach Rich Wright was a part of all five matchups against Grand Valley State and is ready for the revamped rivalry.
“Over 15 years, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to play against Grand Valley State,” Wright said. “Three of them in National Championship games so usually the stakes are pretty high when we (Northwest) tangle with them (Grand Valley State). I realize that not one of the players on our team or their team has ever played each other. It is going to be a renewal of a rivalry.”
The Bearcats will need to duplicate the success they had against Central Missouri Nov. 10 in a 48-21 victory to extend their season. Northwest dominated on the ground against the Mules and controlled the line of scrimmage, which is something Wright emphasized heading into the postseason.
“We were very physical in practice all week and that showed on Saturday,” Wright said. “We ran the football really well and that’s got to be a recipe for us heading into the playoffs.”
While the rivalry has taken a few years off, the similarities between the Bearcats and Lakers are easy to see. Northwest averages 37.5 points per game with a scoring differential of 24.2 points per game.
The Lakers have scored 34.2 points per game and win by an average of 17.2 points per game. It is not only the scores that are similar with Northwest putting up 430.6 offensive yards per game and Grand Valley State a touch higher with 433 yards per contest.
Defense is where the Bearcats separate themselves from the Lakers. Giving up nearly 65 fewer yards per game and almost four points less per game, the Bearcats defense has an edge over the Lakers.
One of the most dominant units for the Bearcat defense has been the defensive line, which is led by senior defensive end Austen Eskew and sophomore defensive tackle Sam Roberts. Eskew leads Northwest in tackles for loss (15) and sacks (7.5) with Roberts right behind him in both categories.
The team has racked up 93 tackles for loss and 32 sacks on the year while holding opponents to 66 yards rushing per game. The battle in the trenches between the offensive and defensive lines from both Northwest and Grand Valley State may decide who takes control of the game early on.
As strong as Northwest has been stopping the run, it has been equally dominant at putting up rushing yards. The Bearcats average 208 yards on the ground per game and have scored a total of 29 rushing touchdowns through the regular season.
Senior offensive tackle Zach Flott has been a key piece in the physical running game Northwest has established this season and says the challenge that the Lakers bring is exciting.
“As an offensive lineman, the long pass plays are great, but we prefer when we try to impose our will and just shove it down the defenses throat,” Flott said. “We did that last year and it was a ton of fun, and hopefully we can do that again this week.”
Flott and the rest of the Bearcats will have the chance to impose their will from the opening kickoff at 12 p.m. Nov. 17 in Allendale for the opening round of the NCAA Division II Football Playoffs.