MARYVILLE, Mo. — The Northwest Missouri State University football team hasn’t played the toughest competition the last two weeks — it knows that — but the next two weeks will contain the most demanding tests.
The first of the final two tests for the No. 12 ranked Bearcats (8-1, 8-1 MIAA) will be Fort Hays State (7-2). Northwest will make the 322-mile trek west for the first time in three years to take on its fellow MIAA co-champion in 2019.
“It’s very fair,” coach Rich Wright said about this being his team’s biggest game this season. “But at the same time, they’re all big because of what our expectation levels are. We treat every game the same but you’re at the end of the season and you’re playing for something.”
The Cats are 19-14-1 all-time against the Tigers. Northwest has won the last six meetings between the two schools in Hays, Kansas, as the last loss came in 1978.
After winning the last two contests, Fort Hays will seek to knock the Bearcats off for the third-straight year, something no team has done since Pittsburg State won three in a row 2004 and 2005.
“I don’t worry about that stuff,” Wright said. “It’s just the next opponent on the schedule.”
Saturday’s matchup will include the top two scoring defenses in the conference. The Bearcats lead the MIAA allowing 18.8 points per game while the Tigers concede an average of 21.2 points per game, good enough for second in the league.
Northwest’s defense has been on a roll as of late. Despite playing the bottom two teams in the conference, the Bearcats haven’t allowed an offensive touchdown in nine quarters of play heading into their game against Hays.
“We’ve been playing much better,” Wright said. “But it’s all relative. Those are two of the not better offenses in our league too so that was kind of the expectation. I do feel like we have improved and that was the one thing I was concerned with.”
The run defense continues to remain stout for the Cats as they have allowed opposing teams to rush for an average of 90.4 yards per game in their nine games this season while conceding 20 points in the fourth quarter this year.
The Cats were able to collect 17 tackles-for-loss last week marking the sixth-best single-game total by an NCAA Division II team in 2019. It is the most tackles for loss by a team in the MIAA this season.
“I think the biggest indicator (of the tackles-for-loss) is just guys doing their job,” senior defensive end Zach Pierce said. “If you would roll the film back, some of those T-F-Ls are because other guys are doing their job. … I might have gotten more stats than anyone in certain categories but they set me up.”
Pierce was named MIAA co-defensive player of the week in his first start collecting four tackles, three tackles-for-loss, a sack and a forced fumble.
After scoring 79-points a week ago, Northwest ranks No. 2 in the nation in scoring offense, putting up 48 points per game.
Junior wide receiver Imoni Donadelle continues to make teams notice in his first season with the Bearcats. Donadelle leads the team in receiving with 501 yards on 25 yards. The junior college transfer also has 872 all-purpose yards, averaging 24.22 yards per touch.
Northwest was able to get senior running back Justin Rankin going once again. The Oberlin, Ohio, native became the first player since 2011 to rush for more than 200 yards in a game. Rankin’s four-touchdown performance was the 14th such game in school history. The senior was able to collect 211 yards and four scores on 12 carries.
“Hays and Northwest is always a physical football game,” Wright said. “We feel like we’re a physical football team. … I know that’s kind of what they (Fort Hays) have tried to carry forward. So it’s going to be what it’s going to be.”
The Bearcats will kick things off with Fort Hays State at 2 p.m. Saturday at Lewis Field Stadium in Hays, Kansas.