In the aftermath of a 50-21 win over Central Washington in the first round of the Division II playoffs Saturday afternoon, Northwest football coach Rich Wright and senior running back Al McKeller made their way toward a small room below the seating concourses on the westernmost side of Bearcat Stadium.
Wright entered, followed by McKeller, and both eventually took a seat at a wooden table in front of a Northwest-themed backdrop, waiting for a group of reporters to fire away with questions about the 29-point beatdown that preceded that very moment.
Wright wasn’t too worried about the Bearcats’ latest triumph, though. Instead, he was excited about what’s to come in the following days.
“We’re gonna have some turkey together,” Wright said to McKeller, who was sitting directly to his left.
The No. 3 Bearcats’ (10-1) taming of the Wildcats (8-3) was the first step in Northwest’s “cookie recipe,” one that Wright mentioned ahead of the matchup with Washington.
“Win a playoff game — that’s No. 1, OK?” Wright said Nov. 16. “Get to Thanksgiving together. Play into December. Play on television. Play for it all. At Northwest, there’s your cookie recipe if we’re doing what we’re supposed to do.”
McKeller was a crucial part in the Bearcats being able to prepare the ingredients for step two in their process of claiming the program’s seventh national title. The senior finished with 130 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 23 carries.
His first score of the game was a 3-yard plunge into the end zone on Northwest’s second possession to give the Bearcats two touchdowns in as many possessions. It capped off an 11-play, 70-yard drive that left Northwest with a 13-0 lead with 6 minutes and 7 seconds left in the first quarter.
“We felt like, with our playoff experience, that we were a team that if we — they hadn’t played in a close game in several weeks — if we could come out and get them down early, that we’d cast a shadow of doubt for them,” Wright said. “We were able to do that.”
The running back’s second score was a 14-yard scamper down the east sideline of Mel Tjeerdsma Field on the first play of the fourth quarter, one that gave Northwest a 47-7 lead.
His performance was emblematic of Northwest’s ability to rush the ball against a Washington defense that allowed opponents an average of 122.7 yards rushing throughout the Wildcats’ 10-game regular season. Northwest took 52 rushing attempts and turned them into 217 yards rushing against Washington.
“Man, really just all the credit to the offensive line,” McKeller said. “It wasn’t really hard to see anything. The holes were wide open, and I just do my job on hitting them and getting in the end zone.”
Of course, there were a few things that happened en route to Northwest’s lead ballooning to as large as 50-7 with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, including starting quarterback Mike Hohensee going down midway through the second.
It was a designed pass play, one that was accompanied by a collapsed pocket, forcing the sophomore to scramble to his left. It was there, a few yards away from Northwest’s sideline, Hohensee tweaked something before dropping to the ground.
Junior quarterback Braden Wright — the starting quarterback prior to undergoing emergency surgery in Week 2 — was inserted at the helm of Northwest’s offense while the Bearcats were nursing a 13-7 lead.
Braden Wright had already been cleared from his post-surgery recovery, taking his first snaps since being sidelined during the Bearcats' Week 8 win over Northeastern State. He hadn't seen any action of importance, though, with all of his snaps coming in the second half of blowout victories.
But there he was, trying to create a response to Washington redshirt freshman quarterback Quincy Glasper’s 8-yard connection with running back Tyler Flanagan for the Wildcats’ first score of the game.
That’s exactly what Braden Wright did, creating that response and finishing the drive with a 17-yard touchdown pass to senior wideout Imoni Donadelle.
“It was fun to be back out there,” Braden Wright said. “Seeing Mike go down sucks, and then just having to get thrown in there with no warm up or anything, that’s not the situation you necessarily want. … I just knew I needed to go out there and do what I could to help the team win.”
None of that was unfamiliar territory for the Elkhorn, Nebraska, native. He had been in playoff games before, winning three of them during his previous two years as the starter. The moment was never too big for the 2018 MIAA Freshman of the Year, who led Northwest to a Week 1 win over Fort Hays before being sidelined.
He finished with 178 yards passing and three touchdowns while completing 11-of-15 passes, a stat line that effectively moved him to No. 7 on the program’s all-time list for passing touchdowns (53). He finished with four total touchdowns, adding a 1-yard rush into the end zone with a quarterback sneak to give Northwest a 34-7 lead midway through the third quarter.
“It was kind of exactly what we prepared for all week,” Braden Wright said about Washington’s defensive plan. “We saw a little bit more man (coverage) in the second half than we ever would’ve expected they would play against us. They brought some pressure, but I finally got to see a good Coach (Todd) Sturdy game plan up close.”
Northwest’s defense aided Braden Wright and company in putting on a clinic against the Wildcats, who finished with a meager 173 yards of total offense. Washington entered the contest putting up an average of 424.9 yards of offense a game, including 191 yards rushing per contest.
All of that was put to a halt by Division II’s second-best defense, which allowed a nation-best average of 36.7 yards rushing per game throughout the first 11 weeks of the season.
Despite late-game scores — a 94-yard kickoff return from Flanagan and a 1-yard rush from him, too — Northwest’s defense was able to wreak havoc on the Wildcats offense throughout the game.
“We have a pretty good system that’s structured to handle the run game,” Rich Wright said. “When you’re not familiar with how we play, I feel like it gives us an advantage, in terms of — we just do things a little bit differently up front.”
It was a unit that forced Glasper — the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year — into two interceptions, which is as many as he had thrown the entire regular season prior to Saturday’s game.
He was sacked three times, too, all mistakes created by the pressure Northwest’s defensive line applied to the first-year starter.
“They’re really big, strong, athletic and it’s something we’ve seen once or twice this year from, like, Eastern Washington,” Flanagan said of Northwest’s defensive line. “They were definitely physical, and our offensive line battled every play, and we did what we could.”
That dominant win is behind the Bearcats now, though, and they’ll turn their attention to a second-round matchup with Harding, a team that beat Northwest’s MIAA foe Washburn 30-14 in the first round. The two programs met in Maryville for a first-round game in 2019, one that Northwest won 7-6 after stopping the Bisons game-winning 2-point conversion try on the final play of the game.
But before the ’Cats make the eight-hour trek to Searcy, Arkansas, they’ll stay put in Maryville, not having the opportunity to spend time with their families from across the country.
Instead, they’ll spend Thanksgiving with their family in Maryville, the one they hope pushes them one step further in Rich Wright’s cookie recipe.
“My biggest thing to be thankful for in winning this playoff game is the fact that — these guys are my family, and that’s the way I live this thing,” Rich Wright said. “We get to have Thanksgiving together, and I’m fired up about that. There’s always something special about practicing on Thanksgiving morning and getting to sit down with these guys on Thanksgiving afternoon.”