Braden Wright

Quarterback Braden Wright, a sophomore from Elkhorn South, has thrown for 2,160 yards, run for 612 and accounted for 32 touchdowns for Northwest Missouri State, which averages 46.6 points a game.

Northwest Missouri officially plays its playoff opener at 1 p.m. Saturday, hosting Harding University of Arkansas.

But for all intents and purposes, the Bearcats felt like they were in the playoffs the past two weeks.

“We’ve had a playoff mentality since that loss to Kearney. We’ve been in win-or-go-home phase since then,” said Northwest junior linebacker Brody Buck, a Millard North graduate.

Northwest was upset by UNK 24-17 Oct. 19. Two lopsided wins followed before the Bearcats finished the regular season against defending MIAA champion Fort Hays State and unbeaten Central Missouri. With a loss in either game, there was a good chance Northwest would have been knocked from playoff contention.

After outlasting Hays in double overtime, the Bearcats handed Central Missouri its first loss, 45-23, last Saturday. Northwest had fewer total yards, but its defense recorded eight sacks and forced six turnovers.

“Our defense kept us in that game,” said quarterback Braden Wright, who passed for 183 yards and ran for 86 and two touchdowns that day. “Our defense makes life a lot easier on us.”

Buck had a key role in that defensive effort. He finished with a season-high four solo tackles and a fumble recovery that turned into a touchdown — he scooped up the fumble and ran 15 yards, then as he was being tackled, he handed the ball to teammate Trey Washington who ran the final 26 yards for the score.

Buck said that overall defensive performance was a great way to head into the playoffs.

“That’s the kind of day we’ve been capable of all year,” he said.

Northwest’s run defense will be tested by Harding (10-1), which has won 10 straight. Harding leads Division II in rushing, averaging 393 yards a game. Cole Chancey has more than 3,600 career yards rushing, second most in school history.

Wright, who was named second-team All-MIAA this week, triggers a Northwest offense that averages 46.6 points a game. This season the sophomore from Elkhorn South has thrown for 2,160 yards and 23 touchdowns and is second on the team in rushing with 612 yards and nine TDs. Those numbers are similar to last season when he led the Bearcats into the second round of the playoffs.

He said that postseason experience is important.

“It’s a lot more than people think. Every mistake in the playoffs is amplified. You need to play clean games,” he said. “You’re playing teams you don’t normally play, so you have to do your film study.”

When it comes to playoff experience, no Division II program has more than the Bearcats. This is their 16th straight year in the playoffs and they’ve won 22 straight home playoff games.

“You hear about the program’s history all the time, this being the 16th year in a row,” Buck said. “It’s cool to be a part of that, and now we have the chance to create our own destiny for the 2019 team.”

Other games

Dickinson State (8-2) at Morningside (10-0), noon: Morningside, the top seed in the NAIA playoffs, is coming off a 37-27 win over then-No. 5 Northwestern. Arnijae Ponder rushed for a career-high 238 yards that day, and the Omaha Burke grad is closing in on becoming the school’s career rushing leader. Bellevue West grad Joe Dolincheck has passed for 3,015 yards for the Mustangs, who lead the NAIA in scoring (56.6 points per game). Dickinson’s two losses are by a total of three points.

St. Xavier (Ill.) (8-2) at Northwestern (9-1), noon: Northwestern dropped from fifth to eighth in the NAIA poll and host St. Xavier, winners of seven in a row. Northwestern QB Tyson Kooima was named the GPAC offensive player of the year. He has thrown for 2,797 yards and 25 TDs. Teammate Tanner Machacek earned defensive player of the year honors. St. Xavier is led by Alex Martinez, who has passed for 3,220 yards and has 33 total touchdowns.