By TOMMY REZAC
St. Joseph Post
For the first time in over two years, the biggest college football rivalry in northwest Missouri will be renewed.
No. 2 Northwest Missouri State (3-0) comes to St. Joseph to face Missouri Western (2-2) on Saturday night at 6 p.m. at Spratt Stadium.
This will be the first meeting between the Griffons and Bearcats on the gridiron since September 5, 2019, when the two rivals opened the season against one another.
Missouri Western saw a 35-31 lead slip away late that day, as Northwest scored 14 unanswered points in the final 12:38 to come away with a 45-35 win in a game that was also at Spratt Stadium.
Northwest has won the last seven meetings in the series, and 10 of the last 11 matchups in St. Joseph. The Bearcats lead the all-time series 28-13.
The implications of this game are obvious. It's the Griffons' toughest opponent on the schedule, as well as their closest and biggest rival. Be that as it may, Missouri Western receiver and freshman Hezekiah Trotter says the Griffons are just going about their business as they normally would.
"Yeah, there might be a little bit more added spice to it this week just because it is Northwest," Trotter said, "but, I mean, we're looking at this as if it's a very winnable game. It doesn't matter who has to come in and play us. They have to come in and give us their best effort, and that's what we're expecting, but I'm excited to finally get to play in an atmosphere like that against such a rival."
Trotter scored his first career touchdown last week, and hauled in four passes for a career-high 121 yards, as the Griffons lost 47-41 in a shootout at Washburn last Saturday.
Missouri Western piled up 579 yards of offense, and quarterback Anthony Vespo set a single-game school record with 443 yards passing, but the Ichabods had 532 yards themselves, and capitalized off of multiple special teams penalties and a pair of Missouri Western turnovers.
"We did some good things," Missouri Western head coach Matt Williamson said. "It wasn't that we got beat. It was more that we beat ourselves if you go back and watch all of the film. So, that's something we're going to make sure we correct this week, and we have to be ready to go. But, I was absolutely ecstatic about how effective we were as an offense."
The Griffons are now averaging over 493 yards and over 35 points per game - both figures rank in the top three in the MIAA. Their 366 passing yards per game ranks first in the league and third nationally.
"Each week, you can kind of see us just get better and better," Trotter said of the offense. "So, we just take everything, whether it's a good week or a bad week, and just always look for ways that we can improve as a position group and then as a team as a whole."
Missouri Western will need to bring all of its offensive firepower to this fight, because the Northwest defense is just as gifted, and is among the very best in the nation.
The Bearcats are limiting opponents to just 4.7 points per game so far, making them the best scoring defense in the nation. They allow just 40.7 rushing yards per contest - the fewest allowed in the MIAA, making Northwest the fourth best rushing defense in Division II as well.
Helping to lead this charge up front is senior and all-MIAA linebacker Jackson Barnes - a Liberty High School alum who was just named the league's defensive player of the week Monday.
Barnes notched three tackles-for-loss and a sack, as the Bearcats limited Central Oklahoma to 122 yards of total offense, including -28 rushing yards, and just eight first downs in a 38-0 shutout over the Bronchos last Saturday in Maryville.
Northwest thumped Central Missouri 47-7 in Warrensburg the week prior. They also won a 15-7 slugfest at Fort Hays State to open the season on Sept. 2.
"I think the biggest thing we've been doing is getting off the field," Barnes said about the defense during an interview with the Bearcat Radio Network's coaches' show. "We've been getting some three-and-outs, and we've been getting the ball back to the offense and having them drive the field and it's putting us in a good position."
On the offensive side, Northwest has found a spark in quarterback Mike Hohensee. A sophomore, Hohensee was thrust into the starting role in the second game of the season when junior and two-year starter Braden Wright was ruled out for 4-6 weeks on Sept. 18 due to an emergency surgery to repair midgut volvulus, twisting of the intestine, according to the Northwest Missourian.
Hohensee has been outstanding in two starts, completing 32-of-45 passes for 511 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception. He's also rushed for three scores in wins over Central Missouri and UCO.
"The offense has been driving the ball down the field," Barnes said. "They've been holding the ball a lot and keeping the ball out of the hands of the other offense's hands, so that's a huge part of it."
The Bearcats play a physical brand of football, averaging over 230 rushing yards per contest. They also hold the ball for an average of 35:24 per game - the highest rate in the MIAA, and a number that ranks in the top ten nationally.
While Missouri Western is a young team on offense, with no seniors in the starting lineup, Barnes has noticed one thing about his team's upcoming opponent that may not show up on a stat sheet.
"Something I've seen is they always come back in all of the games that they've played in," Barnes noticed when scouting Missouri Western. "They've gotten down early, but they've always fought to come back. So, we can't look past them at all. At any moment, they're going to try and come back in the game. I think the biggest thing is, if we get up, just hold them there."
Missouri Western has outscored its opposition 65-36 in the second half this season, including 31-12 in the fourth quarter.
Saturday's game can be heard live on the Griffon Sports Network (680 AM, 95.3 FM) and 680kfeq.com or on the KFEQ mobile app. Pregame coverage starts at 5 p.m. Saturday.
You can follow Tommy on Twitter @TommyKFEQ and St. Joseph Post @StJosephPost.