MARQUETTE - When Northern Michigan University defensive coordinator Joe Ballard was promoted over the summer to his current post, he brought a new attitude to this Wildcats' unit.
That attitude focuses on flying to the football, and resulted this preseason with a simple black jersey as a reward.
"We really wanted to focus on those guys flying to the football, so that's what the black jersey represents," Ballard said.
Northern Michigan University sophomore defensive back Levi Perry, left, and junior linebacker Nick Krause, right, congratulate each other after making a play during Wednesday’s practice inside the Superior Dome. Both players are sporting the black practice jerseys, which are awarded to defensive players based on production points during practices. (Journal photo by Adelle Whitefoot)
"It's to create an attitude, create the edge that we want, a sense of pride that they keep them, that they want to hold onto them.
"It's almost a trophy they get to wear at every practice," he said. "It's been a good thing. Nebraska has done it. It's not something we created. It's something we got from other programs that we liked."
The Northern defense has been trading in its white practice jerseys for black ones leading to Saturday's 1 p.m. regular-season opener against Findlay at the Superior Dome.
Northwood at Walsh, noon
Hillsdale at Ohio Dominican, noon
Findlay at Northern Michigan, 1 p.m.
Michigan Tech at Tiffin, 1:30 p.m.
Ashland at Wayne State, 6 p.m.
Malone at Saginaw Valley State, 7 p.m.
Lake Erie at Ferris State, 7 p.m.
Truman at Grand Valley State, 7 p.m.
The NMU coaching staff began awarding black jerseys - but only a few - to defensive players during the spring season. It was based on production points for such things as creating turnovers, making tackles, and according to senior linebacker and defensive captain Morgan Stenz, doing the right things.
"It's not just about knowing your job or making the most plays. You get a black jersey by hustling to the ball, not taking a play off, between snaps running to the ball and helping other people with their assignments," Stenz said.
"It's more about being a team player and creating plays with effort."
- NMUWildcats.com: Findlay at NMU game notes and depth chart
- NMUWildcats.com: Findlay at NMU game preview
- NMUWildcats.com: Findlay at NMU live video
- NMUWildcats.com: Findlay at NMU live audio
- NMUWildcats.com: Finday at NMU live stats
- Findlay athletics: UF at NMU game preview
- GLIAC.org: Live scoreboard
The black jerseys, which can be lost once originally earned, returned to training camp in August, at first presented to a select few.
Then the jerseys began to spread, leaving only a sprinkling of white this week as the Wildcats wrapped up their final week of practice leading to Saturday's game.
"We're creating our own brand," Stenz said. "We're creating our own intensity, flying to the ball, gang tackling.
"We do the turnover circuit every day. Create turnovers. Big plays win games. That's what we're trying to create here."
Big plays are why the Oilers routed the Wildcats in Ohio a year ago, 45-10, according to Stenz.
Findlay racked up 522 yards of total offense against NMU in the 2012 opener for both teams, averaging 7.2 yards per play.
The Oilers totaled 309 yards through the air, scoring on passing plays of 40 and 46 yards early in the third quarter to turn a 17-point game into a 31-point lead.
"If you look at that game, it's 10 big plays," Stenz said. "We had five mishaps on offense and we had a lot of big pass plays on defense.
"If we can stop the run, keep gaps sound and force them to throw the long ball, I think we're definitely going to win this game.
"Our safeties, our corners, everyone - the long-ball problems we had at the beginning of the year were solved at the end of the year," he added. "That's when we started winning games."
Findlay used big plays again to open this season on Sunday in a 51-33 win over Urbana.
The Oilers scored touchdowns the unconventional way, off a 91-yard kickoff return by junior wide receiver Nathan Morris and a 36-yard interception return by junior defensive back Feraris Golden.
The offense found the end zone on a 29-yard pass by Ohio State junior transfer Verlon Reed to former Ball State receiver Seth White, and on a 38-yard run by sophomore running back Daiquone Ford.
Ford put up 71 yards rushing on NMU a year ago while Morris caught the 46-yard TD pass as part of a three-catch, 77-yard day receiving.
"They're very good on offense," NMU head coach Chris Ostrowsky said. "They've got a very talented kid pulling the trigger who is an Ohio State transfer.
"They arguably have one of the best receivers in the league. I think the other kid is just as good as he is. They're big and physical up front. They score a lot of points every week."
Ballard said his defenders need to keep everything in front of them, play fast and run to the ball in order to stop Findlay.
This being the first game, however, Ballard admitted his Wildcats will make mistakes out there.
"We're still going to have first-game mistakes," Ballard said. "There are things we still work through. If we were perfect, I wouldn't have a job.
"It's one of those things where we're constantly coaching them, we're constantly on them.
"The product is exciting," he added. "It's exciting to see, especially for the first time coordinating. It's exciting to see on the field and I can't wait to do it on game day."