MARQUETTE - As the ball danced along the sidelines, nearly kissing the thick, white line of chalk, Northern Michigan University senior offensive lineman Jace Daniels of Escanaba sprinted toward the ball, scooped it up and dived over the pylon for the score.
The hustle of the 6-foot-5, 303-pounder drew laughter from his teammates on the sideline during practice that day, however, that laughter turned to cheers Saturday when Daniels found himself in the end zone, for real.
With the Wildcats down two to Saginaw Valley State in the fourth quarter at the Superior Dome, NMU junior quarterback Cody Scepaniak rushed 27 yards to the Cardinals' 2 yard line before the ball was popped from his grasp.
Northern?Michigan University senior offensive lineman Jace Daniels (74) of Escanaba awaits the snap against Ashland on Sept. 22 at the Superior Dome in Marquette. Daniels is one of 12 Wildcat seniors and four Upper Peninsula natives playing in their final collegiate game at 1 p.m. Saturday against Ferris State in Marquette. (Journal file photo by Zach Jay)
There to fall on the ball in the end zone was Daniels for the game-winning touchdown with 5:03 to play, giving Northern it's fourth win of the season and third in four games heading into Saturday's 1 p.m. season finale against Ferris State in Marquette.
"It surprised me. When I saw that ball come out, I just jumped right on there," Daniels said. "When I looked up, I was in the end zone and couldn't have been any happier. That's the biggest dream for an O-lineman.
"I think now I can talk a little crap to my brother because he was an O-lineman and never scored a touchdown. Now I have a little dirt on him."
Daniels, whose brother Nick played on the Wildcat offensive line from 1997-2000, lettered three times under retired Eskymos coach Dan Flynn before arriving at Northern in 2009.
Daniels is one 12 seniors and four Upper Peninsula natives - along with defensive lineman Zach Anderson of Sault Ste. Marie, linebacker Josh Droese of Kingsford and tight end Brent Parrett of Stephenson - who will play their final football games in the Upper Peninsula when NMU attempts to knock off the 6-4 Bulldogs.
Other seniors include kicker Rockne Belmonte, defensive linemen James Brito-White and Weston McIntosh, receiver Sam Celentino, linebacker Eddie Knoblock, offensive lineman Chad Pepper, defensive back Joe Vezina and running back Prince Young, who returned from a four-game suspension to play against SVSU.
Daniels said for seniors like him, and especially the Yoopers, Saturday will be a special day.
"Saturday means a whole lot and not just to me, but to my family, all my friends and everyone that has supported me and people like that," Daniels said.
"Starting out the season, we weren't doing too hot. Ever since we switched it around at the middle of the season, things have gone great. I couldn't ask for a better ending to the season with these guys."
NMU (4-6 overall, 3-6 in the GLIAC) began its first season under head coach Chris Ostrowsky - who was the Wildcats' offensive coordinator the two previous seasons - 1-5 overall and 0-5 in the GLIAC with the lone win coming against NCAA Division III Wisconsin-La Crosse in Marquette.
In what many of the seniors like Daniels described as the biggest win of their collegiate career, NMU dominated Grand Valley State in Marquette, 38-10, on Nov. 13. Since then, NMU has beaten Northwood and SVSU, and the 'Cats were a throw away from taking Wayne State to overtime in Detroit.
"It's been different because we're trying to get some momentum going into next year," said Daniels, whose collegiate record stands at 23-23. "It's big for us to have a big week here and finish out with a W."
In each of the Wildcats four previous seasons, the team has finished the year on a down note, winning only one of its last four games. The last time NMU finished with a winning record in its final five contests was 2007 (3-2) and the only time Northern won its season finale in the last half decade was in 2009 against Indianapolis in Marquette, 41-14.
"I think we've been a different team these last four or five games," Knoblock said.
"It's been a breath of fresh air. We've been practicing at the same tempo every week. The tempo of practice hasn't changed much. We kind of clicked against Grand Valley where that tempo finally carried over to a game 100 percent."
Ferris State, at 5-4 in the GLIAC after losing to Northwood last week, has been nearly as hot at NMU, winning three of its last five games having defeated GVSU and WSU on the road and Michigan Tech in Big Rapids.
The Bulldogs, who also have a rookie head coach in Tony Annese out of Grand Rapids Community College, lead the GLIAC in rushing and sit sixth in Division II with an average of 309 yards per game.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Jason Vander Laan guides the FSU offense that is averaging 479.20 yards per game by rushing (1,217) for nearly as many yards as he gains passing (1,355) the ball. He has 14 rushing touchdowns and 12 passing TDs.
"For us, we've had an extraordinary end here," Ostrowsky said. "We've beaten two top 20 teams in America. We haven't played a (Div. II) team that hasn't won five games this year. I would be hard pressed to say when was the last time anyone has had to go through that. We feel like we've already accomplished some great things."
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.