ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — With 12:38 remaining in Northwest Missouri State’s season opener Sept. 5, Missouri Western quarterback Wyatt Steigerwald tumbled into the end zone to give the Griffons the lead.
For the first time since Oct. 31, 2015, Missouri Western had more points on the scoreboard than the Bearcats but just as the Griffons gained momentum, 3:34 later, sophomore Braden Wright ran into the endzone from 10 yards out to regain the lead.
Northwest wouldn’t surrender its lead again as the No. 6 ranked Bearcats (1-0, 1-0 MIAA) would add another touchdown to make the final score 45-35 in their seventh straight victory over the Griffons (0-1, 0-1 MIAA).
“We’ve been talking about the rivalry since camp started,” senior transfer running back Justin Rankin said. “This is one of the greatest rivalries I’ve ever been a part of.”
“This one feels good,” senior quarterback Braden Wright said. “Obviously we didn’t execute the way we wanted to throughout the whole game but I was really proud of the team (how they) came together and how we were resilient. Defense made stops when they had to. Offense moved the ball when we had to and really that’s what made the difference tonight.”
Along with the seventh-straight victory over its rival, Northwest was able to win its ninth consecutive season opener and increased its lead to 28-13 in the all-time series against Missouri Western. The last time the Bearcats lost a season opener, their starting quarterback was 10 years old.
“It’s fun,” Braden Wright said. “It’s exciting to start the season. There’s going to be a lot of mistakes. The weather is hotter but you know it’s fun. It’s a game where you drive 45 minutes down the road. It was a big game against a rival and a great game.”
The sophomore quarterback threw for two touchdowns and 130 yards with one interception while completing 44.4% of his passes in the first game following up his MIAA Freshman of the Year campaign.
At times, Braden Wright and company struggled to pass the ball, so the Cats focused on the run. Half of Northwest’s offensive touchdowns were scored on the ground as the Bearcats ran for 230 yards as a team. Rankin led the Bearcats’ rushing attack with 130 yards on 20 carries
“It was nice to come out here and help the team get a win,” Rankin said. “I kept it up to the O-Line to have some great blocks so praise to them.”
To go along with Rankin’s total, junior wide receiver Imoni Donadelle had 44 yards on two carries. Donadelle was also the leading receiver on the night with a 60-yard catch that led to a touchdown. Senior running back Isaiah Strayhorn had a 6-yard touchdown with 12 carries and 36 yards.
Rich Wright explained the running game and the points off turnovers were both factors in the victory.
“I thought we ran the ball well,” Rich Wright said. “I thought that was fairly consistent with Justin (Rankin) all night. In Game 1 … turnovers play a huge part. We scored 14 points defensively off of turnovers.”
The Bearcats were able to force three turnovers with two directly leading to points. Sophomore linebacker Sam Phillips accounted for all 14 of the Bearcats’ defensive points.
On Missouri Western’s first possession of the game, a bad snap led to senior defensive lineman Spencer Phillps racing for the loose ball in the Griffons’ backfield. As Spencer Phillips scooped the ball up, he turned to his brother as he was falling and pitched him the ball. Sam Phillps would take the pitch from his brother 43 yards for the first score of the season.
“That’s something that we kind of did in high school too,” Phillips said. “We tried to lateral it whenever we could and I saw him turn around and it’s just one of those things, you won’t forget.”
While the play breathed life into the Bearcat faithful, Rich Wright said if the risky play had gone differently, things would be grim for the eldest Phillips brother.
“He came off the field and I said ‘Spencer, I would have killed you if that ball would have been fumbled and they would’ve recovered it,’” Rich Wright said. “He goes ‘Oh, no, coach I had it.’ … It’s really just an instinctual deal. The difference was if he had eight people around him and in all black shirts, that’s not the time to take that chance but it was all green shirts.”
Sam Phillps also added a pick-six to his stat sheet early in the second quarter as the linebacker leaped to swat a Steigerwald pass. The Griffons’ quarterback threw the ball into Phillips’ hands as he bobbled the ball. Phillips corralled the ball in his chest, ran 26 yards and dove for the remaining three yards for his second touchdown of the night.
“I’m feeling on top of the world,” Phillips said. “I’m excited but at the same time ready to get back to work next week.”
Northwest’s defense controlled the line of scrimmage against the experenced Missouri Western offensive line allowing 79 total rushing yards. On the other hand, the Griffons found success through the air as Steigerwald threw for 270 yards and three touchdowns.
Contributing to Missouri Western’s ability to find gaps through the air was three of the Bearcats' four starting defensive backs left the game with injuries. Seniors Chama Pierre and Jake Gassman were on the sideline in street clothes by the end of the game. Pierre suffered a knee injury while Gassman was nursing a hamstring. The status of junior J'Ravien Anderson’s injury was unknown.
“Our lack of depth in the secondary was something we had tried to address all camp long, and usually you don’t take that many guys going down all at once and it happened to us,” Rich Wright said. “I was just proud of our kids. We have this attitude of it’s the next man up and I was proud of the way those kids stepped in and battled.”
Despite the lack of secondary depth, Northwest completed a fourth-quarter comeback for the first time since 2017 against Central Missouri at Arrowhead Stadium. Although it was a position the Bearcats and their fans aren’t accustomed to, Braden Wright said the comeback showed his team things they can enhance upon.
“I think it’s only up from here,” Braden Wright said. “We did good things and we bounced back when we had to but there’s so much we can improve on. I don’t want to say we got lucky because we worked and planned for stuff like this if things do go bad … but we made it happen to get that win.”