ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — Northwest football coach Rich Wright put his hands on his knees and shouted something to his defense as the unit prepared for a Missouri Western extra-point attempt. The game clock read 12:38 in the fourth quarter. Western’s pep band was playing its fight song at peak volume, and the Griffons on the field were moments away from drilling an extra-point to take a 35-31 lead.
It was the first time the Bearcats found themselves down in the Week 1 matchup. It was the first time Western led Northwest in a football game since 2015. And, ultimately, it was the first time Northwest’s offense engineered a fourth-quarter comeback since 2017, inching past Western for a 45-35 win at Spratt Stadium in St. Joseph Sept. 5.
A few minutes after Western took its fourth-quarter lead, sophomore quarterback Braden Wright led Northwest’s offense through an eight-play, 89-yard drive, one that resulted in the quarterback rushing for a 10-yard score, giving the Bearcats a lead they would not surrender.
Facing a 4-point deficit in the fourth quarter, Braden Wright, who engineered the first fourth-quarter comeback of his career, said the team refused to waver.
“If anything, (losing the lead) brought us closer together,” Braden Wright said. “It was kind of that reality shock saying, ‘Now, we have to do it. Otherwise, there’s no — there’s nothing else we can do. We have to do it, otherwise, we’re going to lose this game. … It should never have to get to that point where we need to be losing a football game to know we have to start playing well.”
The comeback came on the heels of what was an inconsistent first half for the Bearcats. Northwest took a commanding lead in the first quarter thanks to a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown by sophomore linebacker Sam Phillips and a 60-yard touchdown pass from Braden Wright to junior wideout Imoni Donadelle.
The Bearcats went on to score twice more in the first half, courtesy of a 5-yard rushing touchdown from junior running back Isaiah Strayhorn and an interception returned for a touchdown by Phillips. After pinning the Griffons on their own 1-yard line with just over five minutes left in the first half, it looked as though Northwest might head to the locker room with a 28-7 lead.
Instead, Northwest’s defense — which ranked No. 6 in the nation last year in average points allowed — watched Western drive 99 yards in just under five minutes, scoring on a 2-yard run from senior quarterback Wyatt Steigerwald and pulling the Griffons to within two scores of Northwest. The Griffons entered the break down 28-14, momentum in their pocket. The Bearcats walked into their locker room with a 14-point lead, and with it, a furious head coach.
“I was angry,” Rich Wright said. “My defenses don’t give up 99-yard drives, ever. But it happened, so, you know, that’s not acceptable in any situation.”
Northwest’s defense faltered again early in the third quarter, allowing Steigerwald to find redshirt freshman wideout Cooper Burton for a 23-yard score. Northwest responded with a field goal from the right foot of senior kicker Parker Sampson later in the third, lifting Northwest’s lead to 31-21.
Western, facing a 10-point deficit as the fourth quarter approached, strung together two impressive drives within minutes of each other, the latter of which gave the Griffons A 4-point lead on Steigerwald’s 2-yard quarterback keeper.
Northwest, of course, responded. Braden Wright — assisted by the rushing efforts of Strayhorn and senior running back Justin Rankin, who combined to rush for 166 yards in the game and 79 yards in the fourth quarter alone — led the 89-yard scoring drive for Northwest that gave the team its 38-35 lead. The Bearcats added another touchdown with four minutes left in the game, pushing the score to 45-35.
Their team facing a 10-point deficit, Western fans began to clear the stands. Northwest’s 10-point advantage held through the game’s final buzzer, giving the Bearcats their seventh-straight win over the Griffons and their ninth-consecutive season-opening victory, furthering a streak that started when Braden Wright was 11 years old.
“This one feels good,” Braden Wright said. “Obviously, we didn’t execute the way we wanted to throughout the whole game, but I was really proud of the way the team came together and how we were resilient. … We hung around until we had to do something and we found a way to get it done.”
In some ways, the game was defined both by inconsistencies and standout performances. In his first game as a Bearcat, Rankin, who transferred from Division I Kent State, rushed for 130 yards and averaged 6.5 yards per carry. The senior entered the fray this offseason and has filled in nicely while replacing Josh Caldwell, whose eligibility expired at the end of last season.
Rankin said his teammates, who he’s known for less than a year, have become his family in the months since his transfer and were his motivation for putting on a gritty second-half performance. He said Northwest’s crowd was “crazy” and helped lift the Bearcats when they needed it most. New to the Northwest’s rivalry with Western, Rankin has been quick to embrace it.
“We’ve been talking about the rivalry since camp started,” Rankin said. “This is one of the greatest rivalries I’ve ever been a part of, so it was nice to come out here and help the team get a win.”
Perhaps the most unlikely and impressive performance of the night came from Phillips, who scored two defensive touchdowns for Northwest, the first of which came with some help from his brother. Senior defensive end Spencer Phillips recovered a botched Western snap and found himself with the ball near midfield. Surrounded by fellow Bearcats, Spencer Phillips scanned the faces of his teammates, Rich Wright said, looking for the fastest defender within lateral distance.
“It’s really just kind of an instinctual deal,” Rich Wright said. “If (Spencer Phillips) had eight people around him in all black shirts, that’s not the time to take that chance. But it was all green shirts standing around him.”
In the end, Spencer Phillips found who he was looking for in his younger brother Sam Phillips. The elder Phillips flipped the ball to Sam Phillips who returned it 43 yards for the game’s opening score.
“I’m feeling on top of the world,” Sam Phillips said. “I’m excited. … That’s something we kind of did in high school too — we tried to lateral it whenever we could. So, I saw him turn around and it’s just one of those things you won’t forget.”
The play served as an early exclamation point in a season-opening game that highlighted both Northwest’s strengths and flaws.
Northwest’s kick and punt coverage teams allowed the Griffons to net 188 return yard but Sampson drilled every field goal and point-after attempt he took for the special teams unit. The offense stalled at times but responded when the game stood tall. The defense provided early turnovers that proved crucial but bent when Western was gifted good field position.
It added up to a winning formula for the Bearcats in a rivalry game. For the second year in a row, they moved past the Griffons for a Week 1 victory. Despite their mid-game inconsistencies, injuries and the highest point total Western has put up against Northwest in more than a decade, the Bearcats toed the line of defeat and escaped Spratt Stadium with a 1-0 record.
“It always feels good. We were far from perfect tonight, there’s a lot of things we’ve got to correct,” Rich Wright said. “Things got a little interesting, but I was proud of the way our kids battled through. We lost the momentum. Missouri Western had it — they actually took the lead. But our kids never gave up.”