Paul Simmons, the head football coach at the University of Harding, called a timeout late in the fourth quarter, on the heels of his team’s first score of the game. The game clock, which read 1:14, was nearing its expiration. The Bisons trailed Northwest 7-6. He planned to send his offense back out for a two-point conversion attempt, so he used the stoppage to talk it over.
Northwest coach Rich Wright did the same. He was pretty sure he knew what play was coming, he told reporters after the NCAA Division II First Round playoff matchup Nov. 23.
Rich Wright used the timeout as an opportunity to provide last-second advice to his defense, a group that had held Harding to one score in more than 58 minutes of football. Standing on the home sideline at Bearcat Stadium, wearing his signature red ball cap with a black “SB” stitched into the back as an ode to late coach Scott Bostwick, Wright used the timeout to send a prayer.
“I said Bosty,” Rich Wright said, in reference to the late coach, “I need a stop.”
The timeout, of course, ended and play continued. As Harding lined up for its two point bid, Northwest senior linebacker Andy Hessler knew what to expect. The Bearcats had reviewed film all week and recognized the formation. A toss play to the right was imminent.
“I wanted to win the ball game,” Simmons said, in regards to his decision to go for two. “And I’d do it again.”
Hessler said, as a defensive player, there was no position he’d rather be in, his back against the wall and the game on the line.
Before the Bisons snapped the ball, Hessler looked down at the green turf on Mel Tjeerdsma Field and thought about every other snap he’d ever been a part of, about his football career that had lasted two decades. His career, in the moment, was one 3-yard conversion away from ending if Northwest failed to make a stop.
“Being a senior, I looked down at the ground and said ‘20 years.’” Hessler said. “Is this how you want it to end?”
Hessler’s playing career didn’t come to an end with the result of the next play. The game, effectively, did. Harding junior running back Tristan Tucker received the toss from junior quarterback Robert Wilcke and rushed for no gain. After a failed onside kick attempt, Northwest kneeled its way to a 7-6 victory in the playoff matchup, surviving the late scare from the Bisons and advancing to the second round.
“The kids did it.” Rich Wright said.
“We stood tall,” Hessler said. “And we’ve got another week together.”
The moment served as the climax in a game that lacked many climactic moments. The Bearcats, led by sophomore quarterback Braden Wright, received the game’s opening kick off and found immediate success offensively, success that appeared elusive in the game’s final 50 minutes.
The Bearcats engineered a 9-play drive on their first possession that netted a 7-0 lead. Braden Wright found senior tight end Kyle Raunig uncovered in the back of the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown four minutes into the contest.
The offense clicked well on the first drive, Braden Wright said. But the unit failed to for the rest of the contest, one disrupted and perhaps defined by a 55-minute scoring drought from both teams.
Northwest accumulated 205 of total offense against Harding over four quarters. 75 of those yards came in the first three minutes.
“Obviously, we wish every drive could go that way,” Braden Wright said. “But hats off to Harding. We, obviously, shot ourselves in the foot quite a bit, but that was a great defense. … That was a good way to start the game and, thankfully, coach Wright’s defense was there to shut them down the rest of the game.”
After scoring on its opening drive, Northwest’s offense failed to on its next 12. The unit averaged 5.3 yards per pass attempt and 3.5 yards per play. The Bearcats were 1-of-12 on third down conversion attempts. They were 0-of-1 on fourth.
Northwest’s lone fourth down conversion attempt epitomized the offensive woes the team faced throughout the game. Facing a fourth and five, Braden Wright lined up in punt formation, leaving the team’s usual punter, redshirt freshman Mike Hohensee, sidelined.
The intention, Rich Wright said, was to draw Harding’s punt returner closer to the line of scrimmage, preventing him from returning the upcoming punt. The Bearcats had worked on the play all week, the coach said. The intention was to punt, something Rich Wright said he attempted to relay to his quarterback in the huddle before the play.
Instead, Braden Wright took the snap and stepped toward the pocket, firing a pass, intended for running back Justin Rankin, that landed nowhere near the senior, who may have been tripped up on the play.
“He didn’t hear me say, ‘Kick the ball,” Rich Wright said. “And so, it was a miscommunication and I’ll take responsibility for it. That’s on me. If he executed it the way he did, then that’s my fault, not his.”
“That’s better,” Braden Wright said, who was originally prompted to recall the play before the coach offered to instead. “Better than what I was going to say.”
Northwest’s offense played poor enough to keep its defense on the field for much of the day. Rich Wright, the team’s defensive play caller, said he couldn’t say much about the offense because by the time he finished relaying defensive adjustments in the aftermath of forced punts, Northwest’s own punting unit was often headed back onto the field.
Rich Wright said his thoughts on the offense’s performance for most of four quarters could be summed up in one sentence.
“Gosh,” he said, “I wish the offense would score.”
While the offense floundered, the defense shined. The group held the Bisons to nine first downs in the contest. Harding entered the game with the No. 1 rushing offense in Division II, a unit that averaged 393 yards per contest. The Bearcats held Harding to 151 yards on the ground.
Northwest’s pass rush was evident in a game where Harding attempted zero passes. In two instances throughout the game, Wilcke stepped back in the pocket and scanned the field, searching for a target with the intent to throw the ball. Northwest’s front seven applied pressure too quickly, forcing the quarterback to tuck the ball and run.
“I was really proud of our kids,” Rich Wright said. “Felt like they battled all day — nothing was easy. It was obviously a defensive struggle. … I’m just gonna be very candid: I put those kids through hell for two days. But I think it shows up in the preparation piece.”
The Week 12 win, of course, secured Northwest a Week 13. The Bearcats will host Lindenwood (9-2), who beat Ouachita Baptist, the No. 2 seed in Super Region 3. After the win over Harding, a 23-game home playoff win streak will be on the line for Northwest, along with the fate of its season.
In the aftermath of the first round win, Rich Wright admitted that he “never imagined” a 7-6 outcome. It was the lowest point total for Northwest’s offense all season. But the Bearcats did what they’ve done all season at Bearcat Stadium and what they’ve done 48 times in the playoffs, more than any other team in Division II postseason history. They found a way to win.
“We just find a way to feed off of each other, one way or the other,” Rich Wright said. “We’re not worried about who’s getting the credit or what’s happening, we’re more concerned with just the outcome. If we can continue to play off of each other like this, we’ll be a tough out.”