There was progress and signs of life for Northeastern State Saturday at Doc Wadley Stadium.
It wasn’t enough to get a result the RiverHawks so desperately need in a 58-23 loss to Missouri Western State.
It didn’t end a winless drought that has now reached 17 games for the program.
But the RiverHawks, now 0-4, showed they can move the football for the first time all season.
They rushed for 250 yards, the best single-game total since 2015.
They finished with 458 total yards of offense, a drastic improvement from the previous three weeks where they totaled 568.
They more than doubled their yards per play average.
They nearly reached their point total over the first three games combined.
They looked like an offense.
“We’ve made a lot of progress,” NSU head coach J.J. Eckert said. “The problem when you say that is that we’re still 35 points off at the end of the day. Whenever that’s something you kind of evaluate yourself on, it makes it where you realize how important things like this are. We talked a lot about what last week was like and we came out this week and made it look a little bit different, and made it look a little bit more comfortable, maybe a little bit more confident, and a little bit more 11 guys playing as one. The thing I want to see more than anything else is us go from hoping to win to expecting to win, and that takes some time.
“When you get down to it, we’ve got some high-character young men, we’ve got some guys that want to be good, and we’ve got some guys that want to pay the price to be successful.”
In his first collegiate start, redshirt freshman quarterback Jacob Medrano gave reason for hope. The Muskogee product completed 18 of 27 passes for 197 yards with a pair of touchdowns.
“We definitely did a lot of good things, especially moving on from the last few games,” said Medrano, who guided four scoring drives. “As a starter I knew I could make plays, and Coach Eckert finally gave me the opportunity to make plays and I think I did that.
“I think today created a lot more confidence. Our receivers started to run their routes faster. They know they can catch the ball now. It’s just confidence.”
“You felt like he [Jacob] was going to go out there and throw the football on whatever you called and make sure it could be a chance to be a completion,” Eckert said. “I think you saw that tonight. He did a lot of good things and I think it speaks volumes about his confidence and his preparation.”
Saturday’s biggest problem came on the defensive side of the ball. NSU allowed 620 total yards and 42 first-half points, and the RiverHawks trailed 44-9 at the break.
The Griffons were sparked by 59 and 56-yard touchdown passes by quarterback Wyatt Steigerwald to receivers Kyle Berry and Eldridge Joyce in the first quarter and had three TD runs in the first half from running back Markel Smith.
Steigerwald threw for 205 yards on seven completions with two touchdowns and an interception. Smith led Missouri Western with 112 yards on 10 carries and had four scoring runs. Jared Scott added 110 yards on the ground and had two touchdowns. Ten different Griffon receivers had one reception.
NSU marched 68 yards in just under a minute and took only three plays on its first touchdown to get to within 9-6 in the first quarter. Medrano connected with tight end Tre Currin for 15 yards before Kevin Jackson raced 48 yards for a touchdown.
Medrano got both of his TD passes in the third quarter - an 11-yard hookup with Currin and one from 13 yards out to Mark Wheeland.
Jackson finished with a game-high 136 rushing yards on 17 carries, and receiver Kobe Bryer had 70 yards on six catches. The previous game high for rushing yards by an NSU running back was 38 by Isaiah Davis in the season opener against Emporia State.
The RiverHawks forced three turnovers and won the turnover battle for the first time this season. Sophomore defensive back Courtland Clark was responsible for all three of them, two on fumble recoveries.
“That’s huge,” Eckert said. “It’s one thing if you keep on harping it and it never happens, it’s another thing if you keep on harping it and it does happen. We had Big Mo a lot more tonight than we’ve had in the previous three games, and I think that’s a small step in the right direction.”
Saturday wasn’t a notch in the win column, but it was a step forward.
“We're going to continue to keep on fighting," said Eckert. “We are going to continue to get better and improve. I think we made some strides today, but there are some areas that we need to make those strides even greater as we continue to get deeper into this MIAA conference."
The RiverHawks will visit Nebraska-Kearney in a 2 p.m. kickoff on Saturday, Oct. 5.