NW Thanksgiving Week

Northwest football partakes in its weekly prayer at the center of Mel Tjeersdma Field after beating Harding 7-6 in the first round of the NCAA Division II Playoffs. 

Northwest football is hosting Lindenwood in an NCAA Division II Second Round playoff matchup Nov. 30, setting the stage for a matchup that seemed unlikely four weeks ago and near-impossible a year ago.

Perhaps the single most gripping aspect of the upcoming contest between Northwest (11-1) and Lindenwood (9-3) is how improbable it appears now, just hours before kickoff.

Three weeks ago, on the heels of a 79-0 win over Northeastern State Nov. 2, Northwest was ranked No. 7 in the NCAA’s Super Region 3, clinging to the final playoff spot the region had to offer. The Bearcats, over the final two weeks of their schedule, were slated to play Fort Hays State and then-No. 9 Central Missouri, two teams that finished the season with a combined record of 18-4.

Northwest hadn’t beat Hays since 2016. Central Missouri touted an All-American-level talent at quarterback and the nation’s highest-scoring offense. The Bearcats’ prospects of making the playoffs were in question. Their odds of hosting a postseason game were bleak.

Northwest, of course, escaped Hays, Kansas, with a season-saving win and rode the momentum to a convincing victory over the Mules in Week 11. After clinching the No. 3 seed in the region, the Bearcats were guaranteed just one home playoff game, one they nearly lost after scoring 7 points in four quarters against Harding Nov. 23.

The Bearcats moved past Harding with a 7-6 win and held their breath, watching on the video board at Bearcat Stadium as Lindenwood inched past No. 2-seeded Ouachita Baptist, clinching a second home playoff matchup.

“I’ll tell you the thing I’m excited about,” Northwest coach Rich Wright said after the team’s win over Harding. “It’s being at home. One of the most difficult weeks of preparation in the playoffs is Thanksgiving week when you’re on the road. It’s just — it’s hard.”

Lindenwood’s path to the playoff matchup has been, in short, bizarre. If the Bearcats were an underdog, as Wright labeled them ahead of their trip to Hays, the Lions have come to redefine the term.

A year ago, Lindenwood was a 4-7 program, dwelling near the basement of the MIAA. Following a 2018 season in which the Lions went 0-5 at home and limped to a 10th-place finish, the university announced its departure from the conference and entrance into the Great Lakes Valley Conference. This season, the Lions won the conference with a 9-3 overall record, going 7-0 in the GLVC.

Lindenwood’s MIAA exit and subsequent turnaround season is perhaps a testament to the toughness of the Lions’ former conference. In any case, their season has brought them to where they are now, facing a matchup with Northwest, a team they’ve never beat.

Northwest was won all five of its previous meetings with the Lions, the latest coming in the form of a 38-17 win in St. Charles, Missouri, Oct. 20, 2018, over 13 months ago. Lindenwood touts the No. 4 passing offense in the country, though Northwest seems to be focused on itself ahead of the second-round contest.

“It’s the best week, I believe, of the year,” senior linebacker Andy Hessler said. “There’s really no one else on campus. It’s kind of like the summer. It’s the football guys and the football guys only and we all hang out. We’re at practice in the morning, watching extra film, and it’s only football, ‘cause we don’t have to worry about school. So it’s my favorite week of the year.”

Northwest, of course, is using its Thanksgiving week to prepare in isolation for what it hopes is a 24th-consecutive home playoff win. The holiday week, which brought with it a season-ending loss to Ferris State last year, also brings a flood of tradition and memories for Wright.

Football, Wright said, naturally comes with Thanksgiving, his own program aside. But Wright prefers when his own program is at the forefront of his routine in the last week of November. In 2017, his first year as head coach, the holiday came with a void in the wake of a first-round playoff exit. It hasn’t happened since.

“Some of your best memories are of Thanksgiving and your family, and what ties into that? Watching football,” Wright said. “There’s just something — I don’t know, it makes me feel like a little kid when I get to go out on Thursday morning of Thanksgiving Day and go practice.”

Wright said he expects Lindenwood to be good, citing the team’s win over Ouachita, but history leans in the Bearcats’ favor.

Northwest hasn’t lost a home playoff game since 2002 and has never beaten Lindenwood by less than 19 points. The Bearcats have won 49 playoff games overall, more than any other program in Division II. They’ve won as many postseason matchups this month as the Lions have in program history.

The Bearcats haven’t played at home twice in the postseason since 2016, a season that came with the program’s sixth NCAA DII National Championship. The road to reclaiming a championship started last week against Harding. It continues this week at Bearcat Stadium against Lindenwood.

The prospect of playing for another national title for Northwest is still, at the moment, weeks away. For the Bearcats, clutching a championship trophy in 2019 remains unlikely. But so was, just weeks ago, the prospect of the upcoming home matchup with the Lions.

“The game against Central Missouri is what gave us the opportunity to do this,” Wright said. “Looking forward, and I’m not trying to put the cart in front of the horse, but if you can get out of the region, we have a high enough seed that there’s a good chance that we could host moving forward if we can continue to win. So, it’s big. I’ll make no bones about it: there are advantages to being at home.”

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