The Northern Michigan University football team is still undefeated in GLIAC play, as the Wildcats went on the road to defeat the Northwood Timberwolves 31-17 last Saturday, Sept. 18. NMU moved to 2-0 in the GLIAC and 2-1 overall.
“Anytime you win on the road, you’re going to be happy and when you play well on both sides of the ball you’re going to be happy too,” said head coach Bernie Anderson. “We won on the road and that’s a big thing for us.”
The defense was the key to success for Northern, as the T’wolves were held to 235 yards of total offense and four turnovers. Northwood has been a run-first team all season, but Northwood had just 136 rushing yards, 24 yards less than the passing-oriented Wildcats.
“Overall we played good,” said senior defensive back DJ Oke. “We had a lot of forced fumbles and interceptions and let in only one touchdown.”
Oke had the second-most tackles for NMU this week and forced a fumble. The defensive back also helped defend against the pass, as Oke had the only interception of the game.
The Wildcats are now best in the GLIAC for total defense (227 ypg), turnover margin (+6) and passing defense (101.3 ypg). NMU is ranked 10th, 11th and third nationally in these categories.
“We’re listening to the coaches and doing what they say,” said senior linebacker Eric Wells. “If we do our jobs, we’re going to win.”
The offense didn’t slouch either as the team put up 414 yards of total offense, lead by junior quarterback Carter Kopach. The team showed more improvement in the new offensive scheme, but still needs work.
“We did ok. We still have lots of mistakes to clean up from top to bottom,” Kopach said. “It could have been a lot worse, should have been a lot worse as we have to search for more consistency, but we’re getting better every day.”
Kopach was king of the GLIAC world once again, as his 13 of 25 for 254 yards and two touchdowns, plus 81 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns, earned him the GLIAC offensive player of the week for the second week in a row.
“It was pretty cool, but I couldn’t do it without my teammates,” Kopach said. “What’s lost from our offense is the defense playing well. We get so many three-and-outs that (the offense) can come right back off the sidelines and get in a good rhythm.”
Kopach was backed up by Dustin Brancheau, as the senior wide receiver had five catches for 82 yards and one touchdown. Freshman Christian Marble-King, junior Tony Awrey, junior Craig Thompson and junior John Privitelli also had receptions, combining for eight catches, 172 yards and Awrey’s first touchdown as a Wildcat.
“We had trips on the other side, leaving me alone on the right side,” Awrey said. “Brancheau was doing great all day, so the safety went to guard him, leaving the back of the end zone wide open for me. (Kopach) ran a bootleg, and I ran along the back of the endzone. (Kopach) threw it right there; I didn’t even have to stretch out my arms to catch it.”
This game also showed the strongest display of the running game, as the ’Cats piled up 160 yards on the ground. Kopach and Privitelli lead the way with 139 combined yards on 30 attempts, with freshman Thaddeus Scott and Brancheau making up the rest of the yards.
“The holes were there. It was easier for me to read,” Privitelli said, “but (Kopach) is running the ball well too. He’s just as big of a threat as anyone else on the field running and passing.”
As the offense is now coming together as a unit, the players are starting to show the same team-first attitude that the defense had in the opening week. That spells trouble for opponents now that all aspects of the offensive and defensive sides of the ball are unified for the win.
“Kudos to the running backs and the offensive line, cause that running game really opened up the passing for us,” Awrey said. “We’re going to do what it takes to win and if that means me catching one pass in the end zone or making 100 blocks, then I’m going to do whatever it takes for the win.”
Penalties were again a problem for Northern Michigan. The Wildcats had eight penalties for 80 yards, including back-to-back penalties on a kickoff, an illegal substitution and two personal fouls.
“A few of those penalties are self-destructive,” Anderson said. “With having a new offense, we’re going to have some penalties, but there are some things that we need to work on through the week.”
Another issue has made the team look absolutely horrible this season: special teams. All aspects of special teams have been bad, with the three straight games with a mishandled punt (snap too high against MSU-Mankato, snap too low against Findlay and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown against Northwood) being the most noticeable.
“When you make a special teams blunder, everyone in the stands notices it,” said special teams coach Tom Wender. “If someone misses their block on a standard down from scrimmage, nobody really catches it. (Punting is) really a focal point of the game and it stands out to everyone.”
The Wildcats are currently ranked ninth of 14 teams in the GLIAC for punt return and 13th for kick return yards, but are also ranked ninth for kickoff coverage yards. Northern is nationally ranked 60th or worse in all categories.
“Last year was last year, but we were the number one special teams in a twelve team conference and we’re teaching the players the same things as last year,” Wender said. “We have some areas to clean up, so what you do is you go back to the basics. There’s lots of moving parts.”
The Wildcats are also ranked last in the conference in field goals, as they have made just one of four attempts. Wender said that the team will move some of the responsibilities away from sophomore kicker Rockne Belmonte, but was unsure if they would use two players for place kicking duties.
“We treat that like any other position,” Wender said. “I think our kickers are close, so we do a lot of stuff during the week. We chart their kicks, look at their elevation, and we time everything.”
The next game for the Wildcats is the Homecoming game against the Ashland Eagles. The Eagles and Wildcats haven’t played each other in two years, due to GLIAC scheduling. Kickoff is at 4 p.m. in the Superior Dome.