Championship football programs also have to find motivation.
Northwest Missouri State considered its accomplishments of the previous two seasons and declared it wasn’t enough.
For many programs, a 21-6 record and NCAA Division II postseason appearances in that span would be a golden era.
But the Bearcats play to a higher standard. They didn’t win their conference, the Mid-American Intercollegiate Athletics Association, or score more than one victory in the NCAA playoffs.
This season, it’s one mission down — Northwest won the MIAA — and another begins Saturday when the Bearcats open the NCAA playoffs against visiting Minnesota-Duluth. Kickoff is noon.
“This year is a little different,” junior defensive end Matt Longacre said. “In the past, we kind of felt like the conference crown was ours, and we went through two down years.”
The Bearcats are back, with an 11-0 record and No. 2 national ranking. They’re the top seed in their regional.
Most encouraging for Northwest, the team has been at its best during the second half of the season, against the tougher part of the schedule.
Four of Northwest’s final five opponents were ranked, and starting with a 24-15 over Pittsburg State in the rivals’ annual clash at Arrowhead Stadium, the margins got progressively larger.
The Bearcats beat Washburn, Emporia State and Missouri Western by an average margin of 29 points.
A defense that ranks among the best in the NCAA has paved the way. Over the last four games, the Bearcats have surrendered 28 first-half points, holding up its end of the bargain while the offense built a commanding lead.
Longacre, the MIAA defensive player of the year, is a big part of that. He leads Northwest with 12 1/2 tackles for loss, including 7 1/2 sacks. He has been credited with 10 quarterback hurries.
He says none of that is possible without outstanding play around him and four teammates on the defensive side — tackle Brandon Yost, linebackers Eric Reimer and D.J. Gnader and cornerback Brandon Dixon — who joined Longacre on the all-conference team.
A key to Longacre’s success is how he’s used. Longacre doesn’t line up in the same place on every down.
“Our people are moving him around, so it’s hard to get a bead on where he is, which makes it hard to get protections to him,” Bearcats coach Adam Dorrel said. “He’s also become a student of the game, studying film, and taking that in to Saturday.
“He’s gotten better each year, and he’s a leader by example.”
Longacre enjoyed a stellar career at Millard West High School in Omaha, Neb., and narrowed his choices to Northwest, North Dakota and Nebraska-Omaha. He was sold on the Bearcats before his visit was over, enticed by the program’s winning expectations.
Northwest had won its third NCAA championship in 2009, breaking through after trips to the title game in the previous four years.
“I wanted to go to a program that was used to winning,” Longacre said.
But if the Bearcats got too used to that feeling in recent years, that’s no longer the case.
“This year, we went into it knowing we had to fight for what we wanted,” Longacre said. “Nothing was entitled. There was a different attitude, a different energy.”