Column: Northwest Week

Western has had a disappointing season, there is no question about it. Northwest Missouri State rolls into Spratt Stadium with an undefeated record and top-3 national ranking. Western is reeling off back-to-back losses and sits with a 4-4 record. They have injuries at quarterback. Their star running back has a fumbling problem. Their offense has been non-existent the past couple weeks. No one outside of the Griffons’ locker room is going to pick a Griffon victory on Saturday, but that doesn’t and shouldn’t matter on this campus. It is Northwest week. This is our rivalry. The Bearcat faithful will travel down Highway 71 and pack Spratt Stadium. In many cases, they will be driving just from across St. Joseph to come to Spratt and root against their hometown team. Don’t allow Saturday to be a home game for Northwest. If you want to prove that you support your teams, Saturday is the time. The defense has been playing their guts out, despite the lack of production from their offense. That defensive unit is led by Yomi Alli, Mike Jordan and Sam Brown. Those seniors have given so much to this program over the past four years. Those players deserve your support. This team deserves your support. Come out to the field on Saturday. Even if you don’t arrive expecting a win, arrive expecting to see a great effort from a hungry team, because that is what this group of seniors will deliver.

Northwest preview: Defense to lead

There are many questions pending for the Griffons heading into their rivalry week. According to Griffon Coach Jerry Partridge, one spot where the Griffons are very confident is in their defense. “Every week we ask our defense to shut them out,” Partridge said. They are veteran-laden and can boost All-MIAA level players at all levels of the defense. For the Griffons, it all starts with their linebacker corps. Thanks to their 3-4 alignment, they are able to put four of their top athletes on the field. Yomi Alli is the unquestioned leader of the defense, as Partridge affectionally refers to him as ‘the old man.’ Alli has been on campus for six years and has felt like a leader his entire career. The defense starts with him. “Alli continues to play at a really high level,” Partridge said. Darrian Bass and Cody Lindsay anchor the outside linebackers, while Jorge Belcher joins Alli in the middle. Tyrell Robison provides strong depth as he filled in for Belcher last week as Belcher was injured. “I’ve been doubting Tyrell Robison, if he could do it mentally,” Partridge said. “He showed me he could do it on Saturday.” With Robison now more proven, it allows the coaching staff to rotate at the linebacker spot and keep starters fresh. The cornerback position boasts potential future-pro Mike Jordan. Due to lack of depth, Jordan has been bouncing between safety and corner. Sam Brown bookends Jordan and is an above-average MIAA corner. Thanks to the skills of their corners, this allows safeties Donte Watkins and Jonathan Owens to just focus on the middle of the find. They have more slot coverage responsibility because the Griffons like to keep their best 11 players on the field and they stay in their base defense regardless of the offense’s personnel. Arbanas Elliot, Daylon Harper and Richard Obi all provide anchors on the defensive line and eat blockers to provide linebackers space. All this adds up to the second-rated defense in the MIAA. “Our defense has no reason to lose any swag,” Partridge said. “They are still battling and getting after it.” Unfortunately for the Griffons, the Bearcats have the best defense in the conference with 12.3 points-per-games compared to the Griffons’ 19.4. “Their D-line is their typical D-line,” Partridge said. “They come off the ball, they are physical and collapse the pocket, which doesn’t bode well.” It is also a bad time for the Western offense to face this defense. Western is hoping starting quarterback Skyler Windmiller can return from a thumb injury this week in time for Saturday. “Optimistically looking at (getting Windmiller back),” Partridge said. “That will help us a lot to have Skyler in there.” Windmiller’s addition would be huge for the struggling Griffon offense that only managed three very late points last week against an Emporia State defense, without near the reputation of the Northwest defense. “What’s happening is they are blitzing like crazy on first and second down and their saying, ‘Hey, throw it,’ and we are not getting it done,” Partridge said. One player to watch against the Bearcats is senior running back Raphael Spencer. Spencer has been plagued by a fumbling habit lately but the former first team All-MIAA back is capable of a breakout performance any week. “He’s always carried the ball precariously,” Partridge said. “Raphael is really running hard. Raphael is going to have a couple more 100-yard games. I just hope one of them is Saturday, that would really help our cause.” Western attempts to pull an upset that would rock the Division-II world on Saturday at 1 p.m. “This is what you do it for,” Partridge said. “You sign up for 11 ballgames.”

Offense struggles in lose in Emporia

Western avoided their third shutout in the Jerry Partridge-era with a 19-yard Tanner Pettet field goal with just 28 seconds left. The Griffons fell 17-3 on Saturday in Emporia to the Hornets.Partridge said he was "disappointed" in the performance of the team. “We are not performing to the level that I think our program standard is set,” Partridge said. The offense struggled mightily to move the ball with any consistency. “That’s 10 points in the last nine quarters and thats not going to cut it,” Partridge said. Starting at quarterback was Nate Wilson, who entered the season as the third quarterback on the depth chart. Wilson was forced into action with injuries to the Griffons’ top two signal-callers, Skyler Windmiller and T.J. LaFaver. “Right now, we are kind of in a bad way offensively,” Partridge said. “We’re not playing at the level we have to, offensively, at this point.” Wilson struggled with a 13-for-33 day and only threw for 142 yards, and Partridge said the third-stringer isn't to blame for the loss. “Nate competed,” Partridge said. “The game doesn’t fall on Nate Wilson’s shoulders.” The junior was put in a bad position though with Raphael Spencer being benched for the first half of the game due, to coach’s decision. “His suspension had to do with team policy,” Partridge said. “It literally had to do with punctuality. Its something we had to take care of and address.” The Griffons only managed 113 yards on the ground with backup Josh Caldwell leading the way. With the offense struggling so mightily, the defense needed a monster performance to keep the Griffons in the game. The defense limited the Emporia offense to 17 points, which is over 20 points less than they were averaging entering the game. “The last two weeks we’ve played well enough on defense, but just haven’t done it on offense,” Partridge said. The defense also finished with four turnovers, including two Jonathan Owens’ interceptions and one from Arbanas Elliot. “Owens had two really athletic interceptions,” Partridge said. They were on the field for 84 plays on Saturday and seemed to wear down in the fourth quarter as the game fell out of reach. Entering the fourth quarter though, Western only trailed 7-0 thanks to the great effort from the defense. “Our defense was outstanding today,” Partridge said. “Played championship-level defense.”

Quarterback depth may be tested

Griffon football may be down two quarterbacks when they go on the road to face a top-25 team in Emporia State. Original 2015 starting quarterback Skyler Windmiller is still battling a thumb injury that has caused him to miss two straight weeks. The latest injury is to T.J. LaFaver who took a shot to the head early in Saturday’s 21-7 loss to Washburn. “Our quarterback got dinged up the very first play of the game,” Griffon coach Partridge said. “That’s still to be evaluated. I thought it was an uncalled for shot … Probably should have been flagged.” LaFaver told the Warren County Record in 2011 that he had suffered at least two concussions in high school. He suffered two additional concussions last year, including one that ended his season. “Any human being or athlete with a concussion is very serious,” Partridge said. “Anyone that has it, you have to watch it. If you have multiple times, it’s even more scary.” With the injury issues at the top of the depth chart, Griffon coaches may be forced to turn to junior Nate Wilson. “Nate Wilson is going to be ready to go,” Partridge said. “He can execute our offense and do a good job.” The Northwest Missouri State transfer has seen limited duty the past three seasons but has been efficient when he has played. The third-stringer has completed 10-of-14 career passes in his career and has thrown one interception. Wilson’s highlight of his career so far has been a 7-yard touchdown pass in 2013 to Jon Green in a 63-3 win over Missouri S&T. The Griffons will do battle on the road against Emporia State on Saturday at 2 p.m.

Column: Playing for pride

Following Saturday’s 21-7 homecoming loss to Washburn, all Missouri Western has left to play for is pride. After a game where the offense could only muster 245 yards of total offense including just 74 yards through the air, the Griffons now sit at three losses. A group that returned so much talent on each side of the ball for last years’ 7-4 team now looks like they may be hard-pressed to equal their record from a year ago. The past two years, Super Region Three of Division-II has not allowed a team with even two losses to make the playoffs, so the odds of a 3-loss team making it even with wins against Emporia State and Northwest Missouri State the next two weeks are virtually nonexistent . However, the next two weeks will show a lot about this football team. Western has the talent to play with both these teams. The Griffon defense is led by seniors Yomi Alli, Mike Jordan, Arbanas Elliot, Sam Brown and Richard Obi. The offense has Dee Tolliver and Raphael Spencer, who have been through the MIAA and are looked to as leaders. It is those seniors' time to lead now. These next two weeks can go two very different directions. Northwest and Emporia State are each capable of making it a very long day for their opponents if Western plays like they did against Washburn. However, if the Griffons can put together their first complete game of the season, they are fully capable of winning both games. These seniors have all had outstanding careers at Western, but in many ways they will be remembered by how they play these next two games and if they can get this very talented Griffon squad to follow their lead.