MARYVILLE, Mo. — For the first time in six years, two MIAA opponents will square off with both having at least five wins and no losses and it will happen at one of the most historic stadiums in football.
After escaping Emporia, Kansas, with an ugly 34-23 win, the No. 7 ranked Northwest Missouri State football team (5-0, 5-0 MIAA) narrows in on a game that has been circled on everyone’s schedule.
The Bearcats will play a home game at Arrowhead Stadium this weekend against No. 13 Pittsburg State. Coach Rich Wright said Emporia State gave it all they got and he expected that going into the matchup with the Hornets.
“When you wear green in this conference, you’re going to get everyone’s best shot,” Rich Wright said. “With the history of Northwest Missouri and Emporia State in the playoffs and things like that, I knew they were going to throw everything but the kitchen sink at us and they kind of tried.”
Northwest’s defense stifled Emporia State's final six possessions of the game worth 22:12 of game time. The Bearcats held the Hornets to 25 plays for five total yards and one first down. Northwest has also outscored its opponents 52-14 in the fourth quarter this season.
This isn’t the first time the Bearcats have had a lock-down defense in the fourth quarter. In their Week 1 against Missouri Western, the Cats allowed -15 yards with an interception and two sacks on the eight plays after Northwest took the lead.
“It starts in the first quarter,” Howard said. “We preach be physical all game long and we make adjustments. The coaches really get us on the same page. Sometimes teams come out and gash us in the first quarter or first half but (we) make adjustments. … by the time the fourth quarter rolls arounds we have it down and we can do our jobs.”
The defense has allowed an average of 73.2 rushing yards per game along with an average of 2.2 yards per rushing attempt. The front seven have 19 sacks on the season with 30 quarterback hits. For Howard, while the numbers are encouraging, he said there is still space for improvement.
“We have a lot of room to grow,” Howard said. “I think that's exciting to look at the past three games and say ‘we haven't gotten to the quarterback how we wanted but we’re getting better every single week.’”
Northwest goes into Arrowhead with an 11-3 all-time record at the venue. The Cats have averaged more than 30 points per game in the 14 games played there. The Bearcats bring in the No. 5 ranked scoring offense who is averaging 48.4 points per game.
On seven different occasions, the game has been able to draw a crowd of over 20,000 fans.
“To the kids on our football team, most of them grow up in the midwest and a lot of them are Chiefs fans,” Rich Wright said. “It’s a really cool deal. On Friday we’ll take a walkthrough at about 3:30 in the afternoon just to let some of the awe wear off a bit. You’re in Arrowhead Stadium, growing up you were watching the Chiefs and now you’re going to go out and play on that field.”
Saturday’s game will feature a ranked matchup with high-powered offenses. Pittsburg State ranks No. 6 in scoring offense with 47 points per game.
While running two completely different offensive sets, the Gorillas have the personnel to run the option with big guys upfront then go with speed on the next play and run a spread offense. “Pitt is unique,” Rich Wright said. “One of the things they are doing this year is they play basically two different offensive systems. … It gives you a lot to prepare for. Tim Beck has done a phenomenal job down at Pittsburg for a long time. I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves as an offensive guy.”
The Bearcats hold a slight 27-25 all-time series lead against Pittsburg State, winning three of the last four. The two schools have combined for 15 NCAA Division II National Championship appearances as well as eight national titles.
“One thing I try not to do with our kids is dumb it down for them,” Rich Wright said. “We’re going to go play at Arrowhead Stadium and there’s going to be a ton of people there. Is it going to be a big game? Obviously it’s going to be a big game. It’s that next step in the test.”
On the offensive side of the ball, junior wide receiver Imoni Donadelle has hauled in 15 passes this season for 333 yards and four touchdowns to lead the team in receiving. Senior Justin Rankin leads the team in rushing with 491 yards and four touchdowns. Rankin also leads the way in all-purpose yards with 648.
After a shaky week in Emporia, sophomore quarterback Braden Wright enters the game against the Gorillas with 1,089 passing yards and 12 touchdowns on 52.5 percent passing.
Junior kicker Parker Sampson was named MIAA special teams player of the week after his 4-for-4 performance against the Hornets. Sampson hit a career-long 53-yard field goal and accounted for 11 points in the Bearcats 12-point victory. The 53 yarder was good enough for the second-longest in school history.
The junior kicker is now No. 7 in career field goals made with 25 and No. 5 in extra points made.
Pittsburg State brings in an athletic defense allowing only 17.8 points per game and 295 yards per game. The Gorillas’ strength on defense is their secondary. Pittsburg State has conceded three of its 11 touchdowns allowed through the air.
“They’re playing really well,” Rich Wright said. “Statistically, I think they’re atop the MIAA. They are athletic and move a lot upfront. They play a decent amount of man coverage but they also split field it so part of the field is zone then part of the field is man. They run well to the football, they’re playing aggressive so its a good defense. It’ll be a good challenge for our offense.”
Rich Wright said he was unsure if they will see a safety over the top of Donadelle this week like they saw against Emporia State and said every defense has their own quirks.
With a game carrying large implications in the conference at a primetime stadium, Rich Wright said his message to his team was to stay within themselves.
“I need your best, I need you to do your job, I need you to do your 1/11th, I don’t need anything more, I don’t need anything less,” Rich Wright said. “I’ll probably have to do a better job calming people down than I will be getting people up. I talk to our guys all the time ‘This is why you come to Northwest Missouri State to take these tests.’ Our guys don’t have to do anything special.”