MARQUETTE - Key injuries have sapped some of the experience on an already young Northern Michigan University football team.
And Saturday afternoon wasn't a good time to be learning with longtime NCAA Division II power Grand Valley State in town.
The mistake-prone Wildcats got in an early hole and couldn't recover to lose 42-7 to the Lakers.
Northern Michigan University wide receiver Christian Jessie (3) just misses catching a pass in the end zone while Grand Valley State’s Zach Breen gets ready to make a tackle during a GLIAC game Saturday at the Superior Dome in Marquette. NMU lost, 42-7. (Journal photo by Danielle Pemble)
GV is only 3-3 this season and 2-3 in the GLIAC, the same as Northern, but NMU head coach Bernie Anderson said that record is deceiving for this weekend's visitors.
"They lost three close games because they had problems with turnovers," he said. "They have something to prove, and they showed it in their game last week."
That game was a 70-7 victory over winless GLIAC South member Tiffin.
The Lakers have won four national championships in the past decade and were still ranked No. 1 in the country within the past year.
"We knew Grand Valley is a good football team, and they did some things to take away what we wanted to do," Anderson said. "We're still learning. It's a process."
The Wildcats' offense moved the ball well at times, as evidenced by their only being outgained 418-382 and actually having one more first down, 22-21, than GV.
But the swarming Lakers defense took advantage when Northern got into unfavorable down-and-distance situations in the first half, forcing punts on their first four possessions.
Then when GV had the ball, NMU was plagued by mistakes such as receivers left wide open and missed tackles that allowed a runner stopped on a play to keep going and break loose for big yardage.
"We just have to execute better," Wildcats senior defensive back Marcus Tribble said. "They may have good running backs, but we can't miss tackles like that."
The Lakers had five plays of at least 10 yards in their first two possessions, each resulting in a touchdown catch by 6-foot-5, 220-pound senior wide receiver Jovonne Augustus to put GV up 14-0 after one quarter.
Grand Valley was forced to punt from its own 15-yard line the third time it went on offense, but when Northern freshman Josh McNeil tried to field the ball on the second or third bounce, it hit him, caromed away and was recovered by GV's Charles Hill inside Northern's 35.
"We were on our fourth punt returner due to injuries, and we stuck a freshman back there," Anderson said. "He made a freshman mistake."
Lakers sophomore Heath Parling parlayed the new possession into his third TD pass of the day, this time to Greg Gay from 9 yards out on the first play of the second quarter to make it 21-0.
And the rout looked like it was on - except that it wasn't.
Another stop by the Wildcats defense gave the offense new life, and senior NMU QB Carter Kopach took advantage, leading his team on a 66-yard drive that stalled at the GV 11.
Rockne Belmonte's field goal try looked like a sure thing from inside 30 yards when NMU got its first break of any sort all day.
The kick was blocked, ending another Northern drive, but after a GV player scooped up the ball, he lost it and the ball was recovered by the 'Cats' Anthony Echols at GV's 8.
On the next play, Kopach paid dearly for a run to the end zone as he was hit simultaneously from opposite directions, sending him flying and knocking his helmet off in the process.
Miraculously the QB wasn't injured, and an unnecessary roughness call on the play set up junior back Prince Young for a 1-yard TD run on the next play. Belmonte's extra-point kick was good and NMU was within 21-7.
A second straight four-and-out by Northern's defense gave Kopach the ball again with 2:31 left in the half. Two first downs and about 40 seconds later, the Wildcats were down to the GV 15 when the Lakers' Kenny Veal stepped in front of a pass route to the end zone and intercepted Kopach.
NMU wasn't giving in, however. GV went 1-2-3-kick to start the second half, and the offense responded with a drive to the GV 8 that ended with Belmonte's missed 25-yard field goal.
GV answered with Augustus' third TD catch, a 42-yarder that made it 28-7.
Pushed into playing catch-up, that's when the roof caved in on the Wildcats. Kopach was intercepted the next three times they had the ball, one returned 95 yards for a TD by GV's Erik Thompson early in the fourth quarter to seal the result.
Kopach finished the day completing 25 of 45 passes for 259 yards and four interceptions, including 14 of 24 for 152 yards in the first half. He also led NMU runners with 66 yards on 11 carries including sack yardage.
NMU is on the road the next two Saturdays at Ferris State and Indianapolis before returning home for Band Day against Tiffin at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 29.
Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.