Football ready for its close up

drew.kochanny

On Thursday, Sept. 18, the heated rivalry between the Northern Michigan and Michigan Tech football teams will become a little more intense and a bit more noticeable.

As if the rivalry between the schools couldn’t be fueled by something more, the annual battle for the Miner’s Cup will be showcased to millions, with the game featured regionally on Fox Sports Detroit (FSN), and CBS College Sports Network nationwide. The added exposure will only make sure that this game, much like ones of the past, will be one to remember.

“This is college football, we’re in the limelight and college football doesn’t get any more fun and doesn’t get any better than this,” Northern Michigan head coach Bernie Anderson said. “We need to enjoy the challenge. We need to be challenged and show the courage and be our best.”

Anderson knows the rivalry first hand, from both teams’ perspectives, after coaching for the Huskies for 19 years before coming to Northern in 2006.

“When I was there or being here, it’s the only real rivalry to my knowledge,” Anderson said. “It has always been a rivalry, it has a history, and people talk about it that played 20 years ago. I remember one of the first times I coached against (NMU) 25 years ago, it’s the single only big rivalry that we have.”

Many of the players are also considering the game the biggest and most important game they have ever been a part of.

“It’s pretty intense and its one of the biggest rivalries I’ve ever been a part of,” junior offensive lineman and team captain Jack Rustman said. “It means a lot and [Thursday’s game will be] the biggest game I’ve ever played in.”

Last year’s game was won by the Wildcats 34-27 on a goal line stand in the final seconds of play, building upon their lead in the series with an overall record of 40-36-3. In the last 10 meetings though, the teams have split 5-5.

This season, NMU brings in a 1-1 record overall and in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC), while Tech heads into the game with a 2-1 record, 1-1 in the conference.

NMU comes off a four overtimes contest versus newly acquired GLIAC opponent Tiffin, only to come away with a 28-34 loss. With a short week to prepare, playing in four overtimes can take a toll on players’ bodies, but players and coaches a like feel those won’t be factors come game time.

“We did have to run a whole lot of reps, we ran 105 reps on defense,” Anderson said. “But four days is enough recovery time as long as we don’t overspend them in practice (this week) and we won’t, we’ll make sure of that, so it should be a nonfactor.”

Junior quarterback Ben Hempel agreed with his coach.

“I don’t think it should have an effect, with it being Tech and all, guys find ways to recover faster,” he said.

Northern’s offense, led by Hempel, heads into the game with the conference’s best offense averaging 481.5 yards a game, with Tech slotted at fifth (415.7 yards a game). The Wildcats top rusher, junior running back Mark Bossuah, leads the GLIAC in yards per game, averaging 132 a contest. After rushing for just 72 yards in last year’s game, running the ball is something Rustman and the offensive line feel they need to do to walk away victorious.

“I think it’s really on the offensive line to finish,” Rustman said. “We’ve had a lot of drives that have been held back by penalties or we just haven’t finished or let our running backs and quarterbacks score, so it’s a lot on us.”

One thing the ‘Cats have working in their favor is the fact that they are playing in their home stadium. NMU features a 26-11-3 record in the Tech series at home.

“Winning at home is something that we’re trying to focus on,” senior receiver Fred Wells said. “That’s our main focus — that we always win at home, no matter who comes in, so that’s our biggest thing right now.”

Although the game is on a national stage, the players said they wouldn’t lose their focus.

An estimated 3.2 million viewers in the state of Michigan will receive the game via FSN Detroit, along with hundreds of thousands more nationwide via CBS College Sports Network.

“It can (be a problem) if it gets to people’s heads,” Rustman said. “But I think everybody is calm and not really thinking about the media that much right now.”

Key returning players on both sides include Hempel, who will be starting his first game against Tech, Bossuah, and Wells, who after two games has hauled in nine passes for 202 yards and two scores. Defensively, linebacker Nathan Yelk will be looking to make an impact after sitting out last week with a groin injury.

The Huskies return junior quarterback Steve Short, sophomore running back Phil Milbrath, who has rushed for eight touchdowns through three games – a league best. Michigan Tech’s senior receiver Keith White and junior safety Robert Carmody look to make an impact as well.

What is the importance of the game to upper classmen?

“Beating Tech is definitely, since I’ve been here, been a real big thing,” Wells said. “We need to just carry on the tradition of winning and beating them. It will give us our confidence back and let people know in the GLIAC that we’re for real.”

The game kicks off at 8 p.m. in the Superior Dome.