Heading into Oct. 24’s matchup against the University of Findlay, the NMU football team sat first offensively in the conference, averaging 37 points a game. They managed only six against the Oilers. The 9-6 defensive defeat is the team’s second in a row and drops them to 5-3 on the season.
“I don’t have a whole lot of answers, we just didn’t execute properly,” head coach Bernie Anderson said. “Their defense was emotionally more into it than our offense.”
NMU sits third in the GLIAC, Findlay is now 7-2 overall, 6-2 GLIAC.
NMU held a 6-3 halftime lead after sophomore quarterback Carter Kopach found the endzone in the second quarter on a one yard rush. The extra point was missed by sophomore kicker Rockne Belmonte. Findlay retook the lead for good in the second half, connecting on two more field goals.
Turnovers hurt the Wildcats throughout the game, as the offense lost three fumbles on the afternoon. NMU has now turned the ball over five times in its last two games, which have both been losses. One of NMU’s fumbles was on Findlay’s 10-yard line.
“When we turn the ball over we lose, and when we don’t turn the ball over we win,” Anderson said. “We’ve won the turnover ratio in five games and we’ve won five games. So there’s something to be said about turnovers.”
Senior captain offensive lineman Jack Rustman felt it was a lack of execution and finishing drives which plagued the offense Saturday.
“It’s one of our goals to win the turnover battle and every team that wins that, wins the game,” Rustman said. “It’s really just about focusing and when a turnover happens we have to come back as a group and play the next play.”
Defensively, the Wildcats rebounded from a Hillsdale team that passed for 276 yards on them and held the Oilers to just 67 yards passing. Senior linebacker Nathan Yelk brought in a season-high 19 total tackles. It was the third game this season the NMU defense prevented an opponent from reaching the endzone.
NMU was held under 160 yards rushing for the first time this season, managing just 74 yards on the ground. As an offense, the Wildcats totaled 233 yards. It was clear, however, offensive struggles from the previous week carried over to the game against Findlay.
“We’re not playing our best football,” Rustman said. “We’re still moving the ball, though. I think if we, as a unit on offense pick it up and get into our grove, then I think we can be deadly again.”
This week the Wildcats will need to open up the playbook against the GLIAC’s top ranked team, Grand Valley State. The Lakers are currently ranked fifth in the American Football Coaches Association Top 25 poll at 8-1 on the season.
Grand Valley ranks first overall in nine of the conference’s major statistical categories, including scoring offense per game (35.1), scoring defense per game (13.9) and total offense per game (450.4).
Prior to this season, Grand Valley had not lost to a conference opponent in five years. Hillsdale College beat the Lakers this season, ending that streak.
“Sure they’re a good team, sure they’ve proven it game after game that they are very good, but it’s not like they can’t be beat,” Anderson said. “They’ve proven they can be beat, and we’ve got to understand that.”
Limiting errors and forcing Grand Valley into mistakes will be key for NMU this week. The Lakers rank first in the conference in total penalties with 61 on the year. Turnovers will be harder to come by. Senior quarterback Brad Iciek has passed for 1,937 yards this season with 23 scores, while remarkably has yet to throw an interception.
NMU will look to the Hillsdale-Grand Valley game for ways of slowing the Lakers offensive and defensive attack.
“There are a lot of things that Hillsdale did well,” Rustman said. “They were very patient with the ball. They just nickel and dimed them down the field and didn’t put their head down when they were in bad situations.”
With the playoffs and a conference title now out of reach for the Wildcats, playing for one another and playing to finish the season on a good note now becomes the main focus of a rebuilding NMU team.
“We worked too hard and there’s still too much at stake for this season,” Anderson said. “If you have good, competitive people with courage, they’ll come back and play.”
For seniors, it marks the second to last football game perhaps most will ever play. Beating a team they have gone winless against would certainly be one of the biggest wins they’ve had.
“Right now it’s the biggest game of my life,” Rustman said. “If we beat Grand Valley it is probably the biggest win of my career. I’ve only got two more, so I’m just taking it game by game.”
Kickoff will be at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 31, in Allendale, Mich.