Never has the number four meant so much to the NMU football program than it did on Saturday, as the Northern defeated the Ashland Eagles 23-19.
When the Wildcats mounted a fourth quarter comeback, only to stop Ashland on a fourth-and-one to seal the four point victory in their fourth game of the season, it was the physical manifestation of the long-running four fingers and a thumb tradition.
The four fingers tradition is where everyone on the Northern sideline raises their hand with four fingers in the air to signify the importance of playing in the fourth quarter. Each finger represents a different value or intangibles of football: discipline, commitment, enthusiasm and effort, and the thumb in the middle of the palm as pride. The tradition started in 1975, as NMU became the biggest underdog in NCAA football history by turning a winless program the year before into the NCAA Division II national champions.
“The year before (the national championship), we lost six games in the fourth quarter,” said Randy Thayer, an offensive tackle from the championship team. “When (the new coach) Buck Nystrom came in, he explained to us that 90 percent of every football player will quit before the fourth quarter and five more would think about quitting. We trained to make sure that we were the other five percent that never thought about quitting until the clock ran zero.”
The 1975 team was along the sidelines for the homecoming game, as they were in Marquette to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Northern’s only football championship. However the team led in the tradition, as each of Thayer’s big paws extended four fingers.
“That ’75 team, they motivated the hell out of me,” said senior defensive tackle DJ Catalano. “We talked (Friday) in practice about how important that fourth quarter is, and sure enough this game came down to the fourth quarter. It shows how much dedication and time came in by the team, and see how much they meant to (the team) by coming out and motivating us like that.”
The offense came together in the fourth quarter to produce a 12-play, 75-yard drive to take the lead with 1:40 left. Sophomore fullback Jared Buss ended the drive by pounding the ball into the end zone on his first carry this year.
“It means a lot to me, not only for me, but the team, the alumni, and the university,” Buss said. “It was kind of emotional when I scored, but not cause I scored, but because we would win the game.”
Unfortunately it took until the fourth quarter for the ’Cats to improve their offensive strategy. The offensive line had issues all day stopping the high-powered physical attack of the Eagles, as Ashland had eight players record tackles for loss and NMU quarterback Carter Kopach was sacked five times.
“We have some concerns with the offensive line right now and the new system,” said head coach Bernie Anderson. “We had some injuries, so we had some true freshmen out there and beat a team with junior and seniors today.”
The issues with the offensive line transferred to all offensive aspects, as NMU had only 238 yards of total offense, and 188 of those yards came from Kopach scrambling on the ground and by his career-low 79 yards through the air.
“A lot of those plays were my fault,” Kopach said. “I have to read the (defense) better. I got to play better than I did.”
Kopach ran for two touchdowns in the second quarter, one for 52 yards and another for 41 yards, showing the threat of mobility from the 6’0” junior from Bolingbrook, Ill. Those long plays changed the defensive game plan for the Eagles defense in the second half, as the defensive line changed their attack from going straight at the passer to containment, which is designed to force quarterbacks to stay in the pocket and throw the ball. The plan worked for most of the third quarter, but backfired when the Wildcats recorded 52 of their 79 passing yards in the fourth.
Junior wide receiver Tony Awrey led the wide outs with 58 yards on two catches, as he has now established himself as a legitimate threat in the passing game. Senior Dustin Brancheau has been the top receiver on the depth chart since training camp and has come against some tough defensive opposition so far this season, leaving more passes open for Awrey.
“It’s been a whole team thing,” Awrey said. “(Brancheau) has been taking things early, Christian Marble-King has made some plays, and because of that (Ashland) had to double cover them the entire game. It then gives me single coverage.”
Despite the offensive problems, the defense looked strong, as they pushed the bend-don’t-break mentality that has made them so famous in the D II football world the last couple of seasons. After two long drives by the Eagles in the first half, the Wildcats prevented Ashland from scoring any offensive touchdowns.
“There were times that we screwed up today, but we locked down and we didn’t break,” Catalano said. “They didn’t score on offense and that’s something we take pride in. I had a big game, but honestly it’s because my teammates were able to get a lot of attention from their heroics in past games. It’s a team defense and we all stepped up when we had to.”
The ’Cats put on the pressure when they needed it, as senior linebacker John Blessing was able to grab Ashland wide receiver Joe Horn in the end zone for a safety. The Wildcats were able to sniff out the run play, as Horn took the end around towards the Ashland sideline. It was the first recorded safety by NMU since 2003 at Saginaw Valley State.
“It was just a terrible call on my part,” said Ashland Head Coach Lee Owens. “We had gotten them with the reverse earlier and it was just a bad call. We have a rookie (at quarterback) and I shouldn’t put them in that circumstance.”
Overall, the Eagles were held to 271 total yards and 17 first downs. TE Mike Kneuven led Ashland in receiving, as he had four receptions for 32 yards. Catalano led the Wildcats in tackles as he had nine total tackles. Blessing added more than the safety, as he also led the team with 1.5 sacks.
“Coach (Randy) Awrey does such a great job with that defense,” Owens said. “That defense seems to take on his personality and (the Wildcats) seem to go where that defense goes. We’ve played four tough teams so far and I don’t know if we’ve played a defense as sound and well-coached as they are.”
The Wildcats are now 3-1 overall and 3-0 in GLIAC play. NMU is getting nationally recognized as the team received votes in the American Football Coaches Association poll. “Its amazing with the GLIAC such a tough conference,” said junior defensive lineman Anthony Echols. “(The GLIAC) could honestly be (NCAA Division one) if it wanted to be. Hopefully we’ll win out, so we’ll see how the rest of the season goes.”