Wildcat football completes dramatic comeback for 26-19 homecoming win


HOMECOMING VICTORS—NMU running back DJ Stewart gets mobbed by his teammates after scoring the game-winning 50-yard touchdown. The ‘Cats scored 26 unanswered points to capture a 26-19 win over Wayne State on Saturday afternoon. Travis Nelson/NW

Travis Nelson, Sports Editor

With less than five minutes remaining in the third quarter, the NMU football team appeared to be in a world of hurt trailing 19-0 to Wayne State on Saturday afternoon. In the final 20 minutes of the game, the Wildcats were able to battle all the way back and win 26-19 in front of a big homecoming crowd inside of the Superior Dome. 

Running back DJ Stewart took the handoff from quarterback Drake Davis, and raced 50 yards to the end-zone with 1:04 left to give the ‘Cats the 26-19 advantage. It was a zone play that NMU had run over 10 times before the last one, head coach Kyle Nystrom said. It broke, there was an alley, and Stewart outran the free safety, he added. Hoping to just get into field goal range, the Wildcats got a whole lot more from their sophomore running back transfer from North Dakota State.

“It’s awesome,” Stewart said on his run. “All game, I had the mentality to play for all the injured guys on our team, for all the guys that got the game taken away from them. It felt really good to do that for them and put that extra seven points up so we’d have that opportunity to come out with the win.”

How did the comeback happen? Northern only mustered three first downs in the first half, and its top two skill players, Tyshon King and Ben Loutsis, were out due to injury. Through the first 40 minutes of that game, there was no reason to think that the ‘Cats were going to be able to pull it off. The rally started with a one-yard rushing touchdown from quarterback Drake Davis to get NMU on the board with 4:02 left in the third. An incredible catch by Wyatt Davis on the ensuing two-point conversion made the score 19-8. 

Both teams traded punts before the Wildcats got the ball back with 9:40 on the clock. An effective 15-play drive pushed them into the Wayne State red-zone, but the drive stalled and settled for a 24-yard Daniel Riser field goal to cut the score to a one-possession game with 3:24 left. On the following kickoff is where true mayhem unfolding as a pooch kick was high in the air, took a few bounces, and was muffed by the Warriors’ Kameron Ford. A host of Wildcats were there to pounce on it, and it was recovered by Tyquan Cox at the Wayne State 12-yard line.

NMU’s offense had a rough go of things in the first half, but Davis and the run game began to find its footing when the game was on the line in the fourth quarter. Capitalizing on the short field, Davis’s fourth down pass was completed to wide receiver Isaiah Popp for the touchdown with 1:59 remaining. Yale Van Dyne got open, and caught the game-tying two-point conversion on the next play to knot up the score at 19-19.

WSU had plenty of time to get in field goal range, and it was up to the NMU defense to create one more stop. The drive lasted 31 seconds, the Warriors gained -1 yards, and the ‘Cats got the ball at midfield after a short punt. Stewart broke through on the following play for the game-winning score, and the rest is history.

“From that moment on, I don’t remember anything,” Nystrom said. “But I can tell you this, this is the best feeling in the world. I’m so happy for our players and our coaches. They were adamant about doing something for coach [Buck Nystrom] and they did it. It’s the biggest win that I’ve been a part of at Northern since I’ve come back. I am very appreciative to our players and our coaching staff and our university.”

The Wildcats have been trying to find a consistent balance all season long. They’ve now alternated wins and losses each week, and as the season progresses, the maturation process continues.

“You never know it’s there until you do it, we’ve had episodes of it but we go back and forth,” Nystrom said. “I’d like to think you could play that way the whole game but I don’t know if that’s ever really going to be a part of our equation. But we find it enough to win when we have to win and I’ll take that and appreciate that.”

The Wildcats’ comeback effort in the second half is one that Buck Nystrom could be proud of. His son picked up “the biggest win that I’ve been a part of at Northern since I’ve come back”, in his own words in the first game since Buck passed away. There aren’t Hollywood scripts made big enough for moments like these. Kyle Nystrom described it as an “euphoric feeling”, and Stewart thinks that more results like these will become the norm.

“The only way I can really describe it, is that it’s Wildcat football,” Stewart said. “We came out this year to prove a lot of doubters wrong. In the past, Wildcat football hasn’t really been as well-rounded as it is now, we’re a whole new team this year and this is just a sneak preview of what Wildcat football is to come.”