Still looking for the first win of the season, the Wildcat football team let yet another victory slip from its grasp Saturday night against the Saginaw Valley State (SVSU) Cardinals. As the game featured two of the top three offenses in the GLIAC, there were sure to be a few on-field fireworks.
When all was said and done, SVSU (3-1, overall, 3-1, GLIAC) came away with a 42-37 win. It was the ‘Cats third loss this season by less than a touchdown.
“We played toe-to-toe with a very good football team,” head coach Bernie Anderson said. “And maybe came up one play short. But we’re getting better.”
The Wildcat defense continued to struggle, giving up 424 yards of offense and six touchdowns to the Cardinals. Despite that, the Wildcats struck first, marching downfield on their second drive of the game and taking a 7-0 lead.
The advantage was short-lived as, once again, NMU experienced a back-and-forth scoring battle.
“This was a barn-burner. This was crazy. This was like, the last person who had the ball was going to win,” said SVSU head coach Randy Awrey.
Heading into halftime, Northern (0-3, 0-3) led 28-21. However, costly mistakes by the NMU defense and a strong SVSU running attack put the game out of reach in the second half.
The Cardinals took the lead for the first time with 4:56 left in the third quarter on a 26-yard run by running back Brandon Emeott to make the score 35-31. Tight end Mike Meade then caught a 13-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Chris Dougherty three minutes into the final quarter, to stretch the Cardinal lead to 11.
With 5:50 remaining in the fourth, Northern found the end zone again, on a 10-yard fade route from senior quarterback Buddy Rivera to sophomore wideout Zach Nichols.
The ‘Cats attempted to cut the lead to a field goal with a two-point conversion, but Rivera’s pass fell incomplete.
With 2:08 left in the game, The Wildcats got the ball at their own 25-yard line and had one last chance to score.
They moved the ball to the SVSU 36 before the drive stalled with three straight incompletions to junior Dan Elmore. On fourth down, a tipped Rivera pass, intended for Nichols, fell incomplete in the endzone.
“It’s a learning experience,” running back Brad Anderson said. “It shows what this league is like, and it shows how hard we work and still how hard it is to win in this conference.”
The Wildcats totaled 462 yards of total offense in the game. Rivera led the ‘Cats through the air with 271 yards and two touchdowns on 21-of-37 passing. He also rushed for 37 yards and a score.
In the backfield, Anderson and sophomore Mark Bossuah combined for a total of 142 yards on 25 carries. Each back scored a touchdown as the running game continued its improvement from last season.
“The offensive line, tight ends and receivers especially did a great job blocking down field,” Brad Anderson said.
A Downfield Connection
Although the 0-3 beginning to the season might not be what the ‘Cats had hoped for, the Wildcat receivers are experiencing a fair amount of personal success. The group’s strong output carries over from last season, when Elmore and junior teammate Fred Wells garnered all-conference honors.
In this week’s game, Nichols brought in five catches for 47 yards and a score while Elmore and Wells caught four balls a piece for 151 yards and a touchdown.
Productivity has never been a problem for these receivers, or for their quarterback. Rivera has passed for 42 touchdowns and over 5,500 yards in his career, but the familiarity with his receivers may have helped him achieve team MVP honors last season. In that same year, Wells earned second-team all-GLIAC honors and Elmore got honorable mention all-GLIAC.
“Whenever it’s a broken play, Buddy is able to find us,” Wells said. “He never gives up on the play and gives us a second chance to make a big play.”
Rivera passed for 2,399 yards and 20 touchdowns last season and led the GLIAC in offensive yards per game.
Over time, his receiving corps has kept pace.
Wells currently leads the team in receiving yards with 285 and has one touchdown after totalling 870 yards and nine scores last year.
Last season’s second leading receiver, Elmore, has made eight catches on the year for 114 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore Greg Raspberry, the team’s third leading receiver, with 20 catches for 447 yards and three scores a year ago, is currently third on the team this season with 10 catches for 93 yards.
“Buddy does a good job of looking off and switching to certain receivers,” Raspberry said. “He always does a good job of finding us downfield.”
The surprise of the season may be the play of Nichols, whose size and excellent leaping ability make him a great red zone target.
Already this season, Nichols has matched the 15 catches that he pulled in last year. His most impressive stat, however, may be his five touchdown catches through just three games.
“I know whenever it’s a broken play I can just throw it up to Nichols,” Rivera said. “I’ve really gained a lot of trust in him from last season to now.”
Rivera’s leadership transcends his numbers for the Wildcats, as he also tries to be an emotional leader for the team.
“He’s a great leader out on the field,” sophomore receiver Tyler Schrauben said. “He is always motivating us on the field and in the huddle.”
Players spend their summers preparing for the football season and try to get on the same page running routes while perfecting their timing with Rivera, added Raspberry.
“We grew from last year to this year,” said Raspberry on the receiving group. “We worked hard on our timing this summer and are playing good together this year.”
The relationship doesn’t end just on the field for Rivera, who said he tries to spend time with his receiving group when he can. The extra time spent together throughout the season helps the offense on the field.
“I think we have a good relationship,” Rivera said. “My roommate is Fred, so I think we’re pretty good together. We’re always able to talk to each other.”
Wells agrees that the off-field time spent with his quarterback helps his gameday performance.
“Buddy and I can always go over things that happened in a game, or things that we need to work on, it gives us more time to get on the same page with each other,” Wells said. “We take advice from each other pretty well, we analyze our strengths and weaknesses pretty well, and that helps out.”
They will be looking to benefit from that relationship against Ferris State (2-1, 2-1) next week. The Bulldogs are giving up an average of 285 yards through the air, including 339 yards last week vs. Hillsdale. They have also given up five touchdowns on the season in the passing game. The Bulldog rush defense has given up an average of 183 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The game will take place Saturday Sept. 29 at 2 p.m. in Big Rapids, Mich.