MARYVILLE, Mo. — Saturday’s regional semifinal game in Searcy, Arkansas, not only features two of the top-10 in the nation this season, but two teams which play styles which mirror each other.
Harding has the nation’s best rushing offense at 402.2 yards per game — over 60 yards better than second place. Northwest has the nation’s best rushing defense at just 40.4 yards per game.
“Something has got to break there,” Northwest coach and defensive coordinator Rich Wright said.
Facing the Harding option is a new scheme for the Bearcats this season.
“It is trying to prepare for something that we don’t see every year,” Wright said. “There is no team in the MIAA — people try and compare Kearney running the option, and they run the option nothing like what these guys do in terms of their flex-bone and what they can do out of it.”
Traditionally, Northwest has been able to win that battle with Harding scoring just six points total in three all-time matches with 2012, 2016 and 2019 playoff games.
“You have to create a sense urgency amongst (the front seven) of trying to match and hopefully ultimately exceed the physicality that they are going to play with,” Wright said. “If you watch the Washburn film, they blew them up and it wasn’t close.”
Harding is led in rushing by Cole Chancey with 1,341 yards and 24 touchdowns.
“We have to lock in and make sure that we are spot-on,” Northwest defensive lineman Zach Howard said.
With the option approach, Harding spreads the ball around as running backs Omar Sinclair and Jhalen Spicer each have over 500 yards and average or nine yards per carry. Quarterback Paden Preston had 536 rushing yards this season and has only attempted 33 passes.
“As a defensive coordinator, there is so much spread in college football right now,” Wright said. “It is 11-personnel, it’s 12-personnel. So literally for me a lot of the time, it is just turn the page, tweak a few things and here we go. This is totally different.”
Wright warns that just because Northwest has had success in winning the previous three games with Harding, that this is a different Harding offense than they have seen in previous years.
“This will be the best Harding team that we have seen,” Wright said.
When the Bearcat offense is on the field against the Harding defense, it is a similar story. Harding is third in the nation in rushing defense while Northwest is 11th in rushing offense with senior running back Al McKeller being seventh in the nation in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns.
“When I first had him here, I said, ‘you know Al, it gets cold here in late November and early December,’ and he goes, ‘That is good cause it is no fun to tackle me when it is cold outside,” Wright said.
Wright hasn’t made and isn’t expected to make any announcement regarding his quarterbacks. Mike Hohensee has started since the second game of the season, but was injured last week and Week 1 starting quarterback Braden Wright played well to finish the game. Beyond this week, Rich Wright has been appreciative of how his quarterbacks have handled the situation all year.
“I went upstairs and I was doing the radio,” Wright said recounting the scene after last week’s game. “I’m looking out and the field is starting to filter away and there are just a couple people out there. And I watched Braden Wright and Mike Hohensee walk off the field together. I think that personifies the relationship piece. There is no animosity. They want to win, and whoever can help us do that, is what it is about.”