MARYVILLE, Mo. — With one play standing between Andy Hessler and finality in the opening round of the NCAA Division II Playoffs on Saturday, the Northwest senior took in the moment.
Standing a few paces into the north endzone of Mel Tjeerdsma Field at Bearcat Stadium, Hessler stared down the Harding offense as it took the field for a two-point try. Convert, and the Bearcat offense would have just 74 seconds to find a game-winning score.
A defensive stand, and the Bearcats would be an onside kick recovery from advancing to the Super Region 3 semifinals.
“As a defensive player, there’s no other way you’d want that. Being a senior, I looked down at the ground and said, ‘20 years, is this how you want it to end?’”
Harding backup quarterback Robert Wilcke took the snap under center, turned right and pitched to Tristan Tucker. It was the same look that pulled the Bisons within a point.
This time, Northwest safety Blake Bayer cut Tucker low and tackled him short of the goal line, giving No. 3-seeded Northwest the 7-6 win.
“We stood tall, and we’ve got another week together,” Hessler said.
Fifty five minutes and 43 seconds elapsed between scoring plays in the defensive slugest of two stout rush defenses. Harding (9-3), which entered with the No. 1 rushing attack at 400 yards per game, was held to just 151 yards on the ground. The Bisons didn’t record a single pass attempt while rushing the ball 56 times.
“It was a defensive football game, the type of game us linebackers want to play,” junior linebacker Brody Buck said. “We knew every single snap they were gonna run the ball – that’s all they do. It’s just fun to be apart of every single play, (because) you know you’re gonna be hitting somebody.”
The Bearcats (10-2) only found offensive success on the opening drive of the game, going 75 yards on nine plays with a 4-yard reception by Kyle Raunig from Braden Wright capping the drive.
Northwest converted a second-and-10 and third-and-seven to Alec Tatum on the drive to strike first.
“They just kept bringing pressure, we were picking up that pressure and converting on third down when we needed it” Braden Wright said. “Alec Tatum did a great job creating space like he always does in the middle of the field, then we were just able to cap off the drive.”
From there resulted in a defensive bout for the ages. Just one penalty interrupted the action with the teams combining to go 4-for-26 on third downs with 19 punts and 22 total first downs.
“They battled all day. Nothing was easy,” Northwest head coach Rich Wright said. “I was very proud of the way our kids played all day. They were physical.
“I put those kids through hell for two days, but I think it shows up in the preparation piece.”
Harding’s first stroke of success didn’t come until a 21-yard run down the sideline on the final drive, setting up the Bisons at the Northwest 32. Seven plays later, the Bearcats stared down the potential ending of their season with their backs facing their own endzone. Rich Wright was confident in what the play call of Harding coach Paul Simmons would be, as he said Northwest’s threat to block a point-after attempt opted for the two-point try.
As his senior stared down at the shaded green turf below his all-white Adidas cleats, Rich Wright stood to his right on the sideline and asked his late friend Scott Bostwick, a former Northwest coach, for some help.
“I was standing on the sidelines and said, ‘Bosty, I need a stop.’ The kids did it,” Rich Wright said. “It was pretty cool.”
Northwest moves to 30-3 all-time at home in the playoffs with the win, including an unbeaten streak dating back to 2002.
The Bearcats will host former MIAA foe Lindenwood, champion of the GLVC, at 1 p.m. Saturday in the semifinal round of the Super Region 3 bracket.