Wildcats lose to Grand Valley 28-7

Brice Burge

It was another loss for the Wildcats as the Northern Michigan University football team lost their second straight GLIAC road game, this time falling to AFCA’s top-ranked team Grand Valley State University 28-7. NMU’s record has now fallen to 3-3 overall, while going 3-2 in GLIAC play. However, the ’Cats lost more than just the game, as starting quarterback Carter Kopach went down before the second half with a freak injury.

Kopach injured his Achilles tendon during warm-ups just before the start of the second half and will have surgery on Thursday. The six foot, 200-pound junior has been the starting quarterback for the last two and a half seasons after taking over for Buddy Rivera as he graduated after the 2007 season. Kopach has thrown for 1079 yards this season with eight passing touchdowns. He was also the leading rusher for the team, scoring six of NMU’s eight rushing touchdowns this season.

“He’s a great player with lots of ability and talent,” Jacob Hicks said. “He’s irreplaceable.”

But Hicks, the Wildcats’ second-string quarterback, had to do just that. The six-foot-five-inch true freshman from Twin Falls, Idaho went five for 11 passing attempts for 49 yards in relief of Kopach. Hicks also put up six rushing yards and threw zero interceptions in his first ever collegiate game against the NCAA Division II national runner-up.

“(It was) pretty nice to play the toughest team in the country my first game,” Hicks said. “I was going to be nervous no matter who I played.”

The five inches in height difference between Kopach and Hicks isn’t the only big difference between the two signal callers, as Hicks has yet to show if he can be the running threat of Kopach. The biggest difference however can be found in the throwing motions of each passer.

“(Kopach’s) got a cannon. He’s got a lot more pop to his passes,” said tight end Craig Thompson, who led the Wildcat receivers against Grand Valley. “Hicks is easy to catch and has a bit of a touch to it, but the main difference is velocity.”

Kopach’s Achilles tendon was the second of two big injuries for the Wildcats, as junior nose tackle Matt Forward was on crutches for the second half of the game with an ankle injury. Forward is now off the crutches and listed as day-to-day.

The ’Cats found themselves down early in the first quarter as 14 of Grand Valley’s 28 points were scored in the first quarter. Another seven were tacked on by the Lakers on a drive that started with 1:46 left in the first.  One of the big problems for Northern’s defense was Grand Valley’s speed and agility on running plays and after receptions, as they were then able to get out of the arm tackles of the Wildcats.

“We had to slow down the game down in our minds,” said senior defensive back Ricky Neaves. “We had to remember the fundamentals and after the first quarter everything slowed down and we got our assignments and made some plays.”

The speed of the game also affected the offense as the Wildcats came out sluggish for the second game in a row.

Eventually the speed issues work themselves out, but first quarter deficits are nothing new for the Wildcats. NMU has now been outscored 30-24 in the first quarter with over half of those points scored against Findlay in the second week of the season. The only games where NMU scored first were the two biggest wins, as NMU defeated the Oilers 49-10 and Northwood University 31-17.

“Having a new scheme, we show a lot of formations early, not necessarily to just attack, but to see how (the defense) lines up,” said offensive coordinator Chris Ostrowsky. “We see how they line up and that’s one of the reasons why we’re successful later in the game.”

One of the ways to try to improve those first quarter scoring is to improve the running attack. Transfer juniors Phillipe Smith and John Privitelli have increased their number of carries and yards in the last two games. Last week’s only score came from the tailback position as Privitelli was able to break open for a 17-yard touchdown run.

“It’s an overall team vibe to run the ball more,” Ostrowsky said. “Running the ball is indicative to winning games.”

The Wildcats can offensively use a little trickery as well, as they used two trick plays against the Lakers, both in the same fourth quarter drive. The second trick play, a wide receiver pass from Tony Awrey to Christian Marble-King, was unsuccessful after a missed pass interference call, but the first worked for the ’Cats. The fake punt was able to extend the drive for NMU as junior running back Brennan Van Effen on a 34-run.

“We have been practicing that play for a few weeks now,” Van Effen said. “It ran perfectly. The downfield (defensive assignment) went to the other side of the field, so we had an extra blocker.”

This was the first carry of the year for the six-foot-two-inch, 225-pounder from Escanaba. Van Effen was the leading rusher two years ago against Grand Valley, as he put up 84 yards on eight carries in the final home game of the 2008 season, but a sophomore season filled with injury has left him mostly on special teams duties.

“It feels good (to run),” Van Effen said. “I’ve been trying to get onto the field and get some carries.”

Van Effen, Hicks and the rest of the Wildcats will be ready for their next home game, as Northern will faceoff with the Ferris State Bulldogs on Saturday, Oct. 16. The Bulldogs are undefeated in GLIAC play, but haven’t beaten a team with a winning record all season. The Wildcats will just focus on their inspired and devoted play.

“(We’re going to play with) passion,” Hicks said. “You can’t describe it better than that.”