MARYVILLE, Mo. — The Northwest Missouri State Bearcats wrapped up spring camp with the annual Spring Game on Thursday night and it was the Green — which was the first-team offense and back-up defense— that came away with the 14-10 victory over the White.
Although they didn’t finish the day with the "win," the Bearcat first-team defense was suffocating for a majority of the evening.
“The history of defense here at Northwest, we are usually No. 1 in the nation,” senior cornerback Chama Pierre said. “We have a goal to be back there again. We want to be No. 1.”
The Northwest first-team defense held the offensive starters without a first down on their first two drives of the game and made things difficult for sophomore quarterback Braden Wright, who was 0-for-3 on those opening drives.
“I was pleased with what we were doing on defense, but we were just missing some things offensively,” coach Rich Wright said. “That is kind of indicative of a Spring Game. It takes an offense longer to click and gel.”
Meanwhile, the second-team offense (White) was able to find its big playmakers early against the green defense. Facing a third-and-12, junior quarterback Jadyn Kowalski lofted a deep pass to JUCO-transfer Imoni Donadelle and the Youngstown, Ohio, product ran under it for a 55-yard touchdown.
“The biggest piece for them is that they’ve got natural ability — once they start understanding the nuances of our offense, I think they can be big-play targets for us moving forward,” Rich Wright said of Donadelle and fellow JUCO receiver Kaden Davis.
A short punt gave the White squad another chance for points in the first quarter and junior kicker Parker Sampson took advantage by banging through a 44-yard field goal.
The first-team offense got its first first-down of the game to start the next drive with sophomore receiver LaTroy Harper taking a short pass from Wright and showing his run-after-catch ability, taking it 14 yards.
“I feel like I have grown a lot,” Harper said. “I came in from Penney High, small school, and kind of one of those deals that if you are more athletic than everybody, you stood out. You didn’t really have to learn about the game. Coming up here, I’ve had coaches teach me the game. I had coaches back in Hamilton teach me a lot growing up, but when I got here, I learned a whole new level.”
The sides traded blows the next three plays with junior Jackson Barnes sacking Wright for a loss of nine, but Wright responded by dialing up Harper for 11 yards. The defense ended the drive with junior J’Ravien Anderson picking off a pass intended for Harper.
“It is definitely frustrating,” Braden Wright said. “It is the same problem that we had last season. Once we got going in the second half, we were fine, but until that point we couldn’t move the ball, we couldn’t make big plays like we needed to. That is frustrating, but we know that those are things that are easily fixable.”
The Green defense matched the feat with Trey Washington tipping a pass from freshman Mike Hohensee into the arms of freshman Giavonni Guido. Guido, the Omaha native, was a scout team quarterback last season and has moved to the defensive backfield this year, finishing with a tackle for loss and an interception.
“Giavonni was going to get plugged way down on the depth chart at quarterback and I can’t stand watching athletes stand on the sideline,” Rich Wright said. “So we tried an experiment, he was willing to do it and he is starting to pick it up and do some good things.”
The halftime break seemed to help Braden Wright and the first-team offense as they got the ball on a short field on their opening drive and senior Isaiah Strayhorn capitalized with a 14-yard touchdown gallop.
“We got our power-running game going right out of the gates in the second half,” Braden Wright said. “Once we can get our running game going, as you saw, it opens everything else up.”
With a running clock after the first quarter to help avoid a Spring Game the length of last year’s, the starting offense was going to have to move quickly to get a victory.
They did just that on the next drive with Braden Wright finding Harper for a 22-yard gain to set up a seven-yard touchdown pass on third-and-goal from Wright to sophomore receiver Gus Gomez.
The youth and new faces at receiver certainly made their presences known throughout the game. Harper, a true sophomore in his first Spring Game, made his presence known with three catches and 47 yards.
“He is hungry,” Pierre said of Harper. “He is a young kid who is very hungry and he knows his abilities.”
A pair of transfer receivers also made impacts with Imoni Donadelle making the long touchdown catch early and Butler Community College transfer Kaden Davis, who donned Shawn Bane’s old No. 13, making a game-high four catches for 34 yards.
“They have picked it up so fast,” Braden Wright said. “I’m really impressed. They have worked. Every single one of them has worked. They haven’t asked for anything to be given to them and they have worked for what they have gotten. They are playmakers.”
Playmakers is one term for all the athleticism the team has in the wide receiver room, but Harper adds another.
“We are competitors,” Harper said. “Everybody in that room is a competitor. We had a lot of guys come in and they started taking a lot of the spots immediately. As the guys that were returning, we had to step our game up and compete in order to get our spots back. It is a room full of competitors.”
A familiar face was in the backfield with Strayhorn finishing with 13 carries for 52 yards and a score. Kent State transfer Justin Rankin and sophomore Raymond Thomas sat out, so that meant Strayhorn got nearly every first-team carry.
With spring practice behind them, the Bearcats now are able to set their sights on fall camp and the season opener on Sept. 5 against Missouri Western in St. Joseph. One hundred and thirty-nine days, but who's counting?
“We have a goal as a team and that is to put 2019 up on that board in the middle there,” Pierre said pointing to where the Bearcats list their national championships on the face of the press box at Bearcat Stadium.
“It’s game time.”