McCook fans, players and coaches aren't used to losing, so the two-game losing skid had to cause some concern among the Bison faithful.
But all is right in the McCook football world for at least the next week as the Bison ended the skid with a strong performance and a 26-13 Homecoming win over Grand Island Northwest.
Especially pleasing for the Bison head coach was the effort from his offensive line.
Perhaps perceived as a weak link on the team, the Bison offensive front opened holes all night long, allowing Bison backs Jake Schlager and Kyle Stewart to pile up big yards on the ground. Schlager rushed 20 times for 120 yards, including a 52-yard scoring jaunt late in the fourth quarter that iced the victory. Stewart added 84 rushing yards on 13 attempts.
GROSS FELT a turning point for his team in the contest came late in the third period when senior defensive back Cody Wudtke intercepted a Northwest pass deep in Bison territory -- one of three Bison pass thefts on the night. Wudtke had inside position on Northwest receiver Trevor Kraft, and he turned and made a leaping interception at the McCook 20-yard line with just over a minute left in the third quarter.
McCook then drove 80 yards in 11 plays, finally scoring when reserve quarterback Vince Lyons recovered a Bison fumble in the end zone. Dakota Baumgartner's conversion kick put McCook ahead 20-6 with 8:35 remaining in the contest.
NORTHWEST answered with a long scoring drive, capped by a 15-yard TD pass from quarterback Zach Rouzee to Alec Waters. The successful PAT kick pulled the Vikings within 20-13 with 4:20 to go.
Northwest recovered the ensuing onside kick at the Bison 48. But the McCook defense held, and on fourth down Rouzee misfired on a pass attempt to give the ball back to the hosts at the Bison 45.
McCook wasted little time in nailing the coffin shut.
On second down, Schlager broke free through the left side and sprinted past the Viking defense en route to a 52-yard touchdown run. McCook misfired on the conversion attempt, but the Bison held a comfortable 13-point lead with 2:27 left.
Northwest couldn't get a first down, as three passes went incomplete and the Bison took over at the Vikings 31 and ran out the clock for the win.
ONE DARK SPOT for the Bison was a shoulder injury suffered by senior quarterback/safety Austin Cherry. Cherry went down early in the second quarter, and a trip to the hospital showed only a slight separation.
Austin actually returned to the game in the fourth quarter on the defensive side, and his status for next Friday will likely be day-to-day.
Lyons saw his first extensive duty at quarterback after Cherry went down. The junior drew praise from Coach Gross for an outstanding performance.
"Vince Lyons has to be one of those guys you look as as player of the game," Gross said after Friday night's win. "He hasn't gotten a lot of reps in practice because we're trying to get Austin broke in as a new starting quarterback. Vinny came in and managed the system. We ran some Wildcat (direct snap to Schlager) and Jake did some nice things, and Stew (Kyle Stewart) did some nice things and that just took some pressure off of Vince. But Vince came in and executed. We really won that game when we had to, running the option with Vince at the end."
NORTHWEST GAINED nearly 400 yards passing in a 46-27 victory at Hastings Aug. 31. But a blitzing Bison defense helped cut that total nearly in half, as the Vikings compiled 213 passing yards and just 88 on the ground against McCook.
The Bison had 233 rushing yards and 58 more through the air.
McCook drew first blood late in the first quarter when Cherry connected with Wudtke on a 47-yard pass, and Baumgartner booted the extra point for a 7-0 McCook lead.
Mitch Collicott recovered a Northwest fumble later in the first period deep in Vikings territory. McCook couldn't move the ball, and on fourth down Baumgartner kicked a 31-yard field goal and a 10-0 Bison lead with 1:38 remaining in the opening period.
McCook scored again in the second quarter on a 15-play march that stalled at the Northwest 17. Baumgartner hit a 35-yard field goal to put the Bison ahead 13-0.
Northwest got on the board before halftime when Cole Leaman broke free and ran 45 yards for a touchdown. The Northwest conversion kick hit the left upright, keeping McCook ahead 13-6 at halftime. The score stayed 13-6 until Wudtke's interception late in the third quarter set up McCook's long scoring march and the fumble recovery touchdown by Lyons.
GROSS SAID Friday's game might be a great model for a classy and classic high school gridiron clash.
"I thought tonight was what high school football is all about," he said. "Both sides, both stands -- the Northwest people the McCook people -- were screaming, yelling for their teams, getting after it. Great sportsmanship out on the field, two well-coached football teams. Fortunately, we needed this one for our mental psyche. Now, take care of business, keep being a disciplined football team, and maybe we can go on a run here."
After losing its first two games, McCook got the ship righted with Friday's win.
"It was tough. Grand Island Northwest is a great team, but we just put it together," said senior lineman Mitch Collicott. "We were just beating ourselves those first two games. (From watching film) we knew we just made a bunch of mistakes. But we cleaned it up tonight and came away with the W."
SCHLAGER SAID his team knew going into Friday night that a win was vital.
"This game was really important. We were 0-and-2 and there was just no way we could go 0-and-3," Jake said. "It would just been over for a lot of people. We came out of the gate, told them what's up and played lights out."
Coach Gross agreed.
"Being 0-and-2 is not fun, and being 0-and-3 would have been worse," Gross said. "Aside from the fact that that was a very good football team that we beat, that's the thing to me -- I feel like we're a very good football team. We're a top 10 team -- we lost to two of the top 10 teams (Aurora and Scottsbluff) and we didn't play well. Tonight we played a very good team and we played well and we won by 13. Give us some time to keep plugging this thing away and keep winning some games.
"In the end, like we said, it's all about making the playoffs, it's all about winning our district, and those goals are still all out there. It's going to be a whole lot easier to attain those goals now because we feel good about ourselves."
THE BISON take a 1-2 record on a long trip to Gering Friday, Sept. 14. Northwest fell to 2-1, and the Vikings host Lexington next Friday.