‘Cats fall, despite improving defense

drew.kochanny and drew.kochanny

Averaging over 28 points and 450 yards per game this season, the Northern Michigan offense has been putting up numbers that any team would love to have.

The NMU defense, however, has been feeling all the pressure, as they have allowed more than 34 points per contest en route to a 0-4 record.

Despite the poor record, the Wildcat defense has shown flashes of being a unit on the verge of turning the season around.

Thus far, the ‘Cats have given up an average of 458 yards and five touchdowns each game. The outcomes of the early-season games could have easily gone the other way, though, as the defense made big stops late in the first three games of the year. In each game, the NMU offense had control of the ball within the final three minutes. The Wildcats failed to score each time.

In the process, the defense has shown promise.

“Our first three games we lost by a combined eight points,” linebacker Nathan Yelk said. “One or two plays could easily have put us at 3-0. That’s how close we are to being successful and turning the corner.”

Despite losing to Ferris State on Saturday, 31-13, the Wildcat defense improved in every statistical category, including points against and total yards given up. The defense gave up 24 points to the Ferris offense and allowed 420 total yards.

The defense improved their tackling, notching 41 solo tackles compared to 29 in week one. They also forced three fumbles and recovered two.

For the first time this year, things were going well for a defense that had taken criticism early in the season.

“Turnovers really help out a lot and that’s something we practice,” senior linebacker Nicholas Bloch said. “We want to get our offense the ball as much as we can, so as many turnovers we can get are a good thing.”

Bloch had 12 tackles, a forced fumble and a half-sack in Saturday’s game.

Against Ferris, the offense failed to capitalize on the numerous defensive stops and turnovers and the pressure remained on the defense.

The NMU linebackers responded to that pressure and collected 19 total tackles against the Bulldogs. On the year, the linebacking corps has contributed to 154 of the team’s 300 tackles. Inside backers Bloch and Yelk are first and second on the team in tackles, with 40 and 39, respectively.

Yelk, however, thinks that the defense isn’t just led by a single position, but is a single unit.

“We have a good mix of experienced veterans and young players that have shown that they can be play makers,” Yelk said. “Also I think we know what we’re capable of.”

A great deal of stress has been placed on the young defensive backs to step up after an offseason in which academic ineligibility issues forced two players from the field.

Red-shirt freshman cornerback-turned safety Courtney Sweeney was thus forced to move positions just before the season, filling a hole left by previous starters.

“Making the move to safety was very easy for me considering that was what the coaches felt would [be the] best fit for me and the team,” Sweeney said. “That, and I played safety my whole high school career.”

For the second year in a row, pressuring the opposing quarterback seems to be one of the main problems for NMU. This season the ‘Cats rank last in the GLIAC in sacks with just four in four games.

Last week, however, the team brought in two of those four sacks and also picked up six tackles for loss.

“Our defensive line has been starting to step up, getting pressure on the quarterback while helping our defensive backs,” junior linebacker Alex Grignon said. “As a whole, our defense has been playing better.”

Getting better with each week and turning the defense around is something the ‘Cats will be looking to do as the season continues.

“We just need to keep taking strides in the right direction. We, as a unit, know what we’re capable of and it shows in flashes throughout games,” Sweeney said.

Although another loss was tallied to the Wildcats this past week, the defense hopes to carry any momentum gained into next week’s NMU homecoming game against the Northwood University Timberwolves.

“I think we took some big strides at the end of the SVSU game and this past week as well,” Grignon said. “We just need to keep playing hard.”

Last season, the Timberwolves hung 37 points on NMU in the first half en route to a 44-14 victory at Hantz Stadium in Midland, Mich. The Wildcat defense should be out for revenge during the homecoming game on Saturday.

Northwood comes in rushing for an average of 290 yards, while passing for just an average of 132 yards. The Wildcat rush defense has been above previous season averages on the year giving up just 159 yards on the ground per game.

“We have to play every series like it’s the game-winner,” Yelk said. “When we’ve done that in games so far, we’ve been extremely stout and forceful with our play and it only goes to show we’re young but we’re very talented, too.”