Field goal ends losing streak for ’Cats

Brice Burge

The Wildcats were looking for a midseason remedy against the Ferris State Bulldogs last Saturday. NMU was on an emotional rollercoaster after a come from behind homecoming win only to go on a two-game losing streak, where it was outscored by its opponents 54-25. To make things worse, starting quarterback and leading rusher Carter Kopach was lost for the season with an Achilles tendon injury. It seems like Ferris State was the cure Northern was looking for, as the Wildcats defeated the Bulldogs 22-20.

“It was a nice team effort for a complete win,” said new starting quarterback Jacob Hicks.

The complete win doesn’t just apply to the team effort however. NMU dealt with a lot of different game situations that the team isn’t used to. NMU had their first 100-yard rusher this season that wasn’t Kopach, as junior John Privitelli rushed for 135 yards. The Wildcats scored on their opening drive for the first time this season on a touchdown by Privitelli, only to come from behind in the fourth quarter to take the lead on junior kicker Rockne Belmonte’s first-ever game winning field goal.

Kicker Rockne Belmonte kicks the game-winning field goal against the Ferris State Bulldogs. Belmonte scored 10 points in the game, as he went three for three in field goals and one PAT on two attempts. // Mark Flemming/NW

“We got the ball and knew we had to score, so I was prepared to take the field goal,” Belmonte said. “We drove down to the 14 yard line, and when fourth down came up, I went out onto the field and treated it just like another field goal.”

Belmonte split the uprights on all three of his attempts and made one of two PAT’s for 10 points in the Wildcats’ win. It was a big week for Belmonte, as he was named GLIAC special teams player of the week and made a 51-yard field goal for his new career long.

“I finally feel like I’m playing to my potential,” Belmonte said.

Another group of players reaching their potential is the offensive line. The offensive line had its best outing of the season, as NMU had only six negative rushing yards in the game. FSU was able to record three sacks, but that is under the season average of sacks allowed. The offensive linemen were heavily scrutinized for their performance in earlier games, but have rebounded in the last two games.

“As a group, we’re getting better the closer we get,” said right tackle Nathan Linsmeier. “We got to stay together and trust each other, because trust is the biggest part of improving.”

The line backed up Hicks as he took the reigns of the offense before the second half of last week’s 28-7 loss in Allendale. The six-foot-five-inch true freshman completed 11 of 16 passing attempts for 96 yards against the Bulldogs in his first collegiate start.

“I was glad to get the win,” Hicks said. “I did a better job with the nerves than I thought I would after thinking about this game all week.”

Hicks had the support of the rest of the team, as the Wildcats recorded 368 all-purpose yards against Ferris State.  Privitelli had 250 of those yards, as he had 18 receiving yards and 97 return yards to go along with his rushing total. The junior transfer also had a 13-yard passing touchdown on a halfback pass to senior wide receiver Dustin Brancheau in the first half.

“It was great,” Privitelli said. “I’m glad the coach called that play.”

The defensive side kept up their GLIAC-best defense, as the Wildcats let up 306 yards on 64 plays.  The Wildcats were led on defense by junior linebacker Zach Pierson, who recorded 14 tackles, four of them for a loss, and two sacks.

“I felt pretty good. I finally made some good plays, messed up a few things, but had a pretty decent game,” Pierson said. “I have to keep improving.”

Pierson is not a starting linebacker, but had a big game after a lot of usual starters took the game off for rest and injury recovery. In place of the familiar names of Matt Forward, Marcus Tribble and Junior Michel, other players stepped up. Players like Robert Edmonds, who had six assisted tackles; Jacob Lehmann, who had five tackles and broke up a pass; and Morgan Stenz, who had five tackles and recovered a fumble.

“I’m just excited to get in the game,” Stenz said. “(You) get used to the game speed and try to make no more mistakes.”

The win moves NMU to a 4-3 record overall and 4-2 in the GLIAC. It was a big win for the Wildcats playoff hopes, as no four-loss teams have made the Super Regional 3 tournament ever. Super Regional 3 is the sub-bracket of the NCAA Division II playoffs that NMU would qualify for due to geographic positioning.  Currently NMU is in a race with 20 other teams with winning records from the GLIAC, the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference and the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference for only six spots in the Super Regional.

There have been some big events in recent weeks that could effect the playoff race, the biggest being Harlon Hill hopeful Issac Odim’s season-ending injury for undefeated Minnesota-Duluth. Ferris State, Nebraska-Kearney and Colorado School of Mines all have strength of schedule issues and budget cuts are threatening St. Cloud State’s program. To make the playoff path harder for NMU, Super Regional 3 has seven teams ranked in D2football.com’s Top 25 poll and four of those teams are ranked in the top 10 spots.

But the first step to the playoffs is another team effort in their next game, a battle with the University of Indianapolis at home.

“We’re dreaming about Indianapolis because we need to win,” Stenz said.