By MATT WELLENS
Journal Sports Editor
MARQUETTE - The goal of the Northern Michigan University defense heading into the 2013 season was to make more big plays than it gave up.
It did that Saturday, but not by much.
The Wildcats turned three of their four takeaways into touchdowns, but nearly allowed Findlay to rally from a four-touchdown deficit in a 41-31 season-opening win at the Superior Dome in front of an announced crowd of 2,327.
Northern (1-0 overall, 1-0 in GLIAC) took advantage of a fumble recovery and interception in the first half to jump out to a 31-10 halftime lead, then parlayed a second fumble recovery into another touchdown to move up 38-10 with 3:30 to go in the third quarter.
Northern Michigan University’s Trever Kruzel forces a fumble by Findlay’s Seth White during the first half of the Wildcats season-opener on?Saturday inside the Superior Dome in Marquette. The NMU defense forced four turnovers, which it turned into three touchdowns, in a 41-31 victory. (Journal photo by Jenna Thompson)
The Oilers (1-1 overall, 0-1 in GLIAC) rallied to pull within seven points with 9:22 remaining, but a 29-yard Jon Linkenheimer field goal and an interception by sophomore safety Levi Perry with 2:56 to play secured the win for Northern.
"It was exactly what we didn't want to happen," NMU senior linebacker Morgan Stenz said about the close call. "We went into the locker room and said as a team, 'If we can do it in one quarter, they can.' The old cliche."
Northern junior defensive end Trever Kruzel forced the first turnover of the afternoon, a fumble that resulted in a three-play, 28-yard scoring drive that was capped by a 10-yard TD run by sophomore Wyatt Jurasin out of Ishpeming High School, giving Northern a 17-7 lead.
A 6-yard run by redshirt freshman Keon Collier put NMU up 24-7 with 3:51 to play, and an interception by NMU senior cornerback Brandon Parson followed to give the 'Cats another chance to score before the half.
Wildcats senior quarterback Cody Scepaniak led the Wildcats on a 7-play, 55-yard drive that only lasted 55 seconds. A leaping 23-yard TD catch by junior transfer wide receiver Marcus Tucker put NMU up 31-7 at halftime.
"As an offensive player, you feel so good if your defense can get that many turnovers in a game," Scepaniak said. "I feel we're good as an offense to score, but when the defense is always giving us momentum with turnovers and big plays, that's huge."
Findlay put together a 12-play, 77-yard drive that resulted in a field goal to start the second half, and had a 9-play, 74-yard drive going on its second possession of the third quarter until NMU recovered a fumble forced by sophomore linebacker Loran Jaddou at Northern's 15.
On the very next play, NMU senior wide receiver Christian Jessie took a short pass from Scepaniak and went 85 yards to the end zone to make it 38-10.
"Christian Jessie is a threat anytime he touches the ball," NMU head coach Chris Ostrowsky said. "We'll ensure we try to get him the ball in space as much as possible.
"Cody at this point knows the offense as well as anybody on the field. He understands how to use the components within the offense to be successful.
"That's a scary combination when you have a big strong kid that understands where the ball should go."
Findlay reeled the Wildcats back in by scoring on its next three possessions, putting together a 10-play, 79-yard drive and a 7-play, 89-yard march to pull within two scores with 12:26 left.
Both drives were fueled by big plays for Findlay, with a 42-yard completion highlighting the 79-yard drive and two completions of over 30 yards aiding the 89-yard drive.
"In the first half, it felt like we arrived," Stenz said. "We were just dominating. Then, the second half, when things go bad, they can go bad on both sides of the ball."
The Wildcats offense aided Findlay's comeback when a quick pass from Scepaniak to Jessie was intercepted at the NMU 37. That turnover led to a 5-yard TD run by Findlay's Demetrius Trapps to cut the Wildcats' once 28-point lead to seven.
Northern went back up by two scores following a 10-play, 62-yard drive that resulted in two field goal attempts by Linkenheimer as his original 19-yarder was taken off the scoreboard because of a holding call before the 29-yarder went through smoothly.
Perry then picked off Findlay quarterback Verlon Reed - a transfer from Ohio State - at the NMU 17 with 2:56 to play, and while the Wildcats were unable to turn the final UF turnover into points, the offense did burn another 1:43 off the clock.
It left the Oilers with only 1:13 to get a touchdown and field goal, but the drive fell apart at the NMU 40 after Reed was tackled for a measly 1-yard gain on second down, sacked by Wildcats redshirt freshman Adam Williams on third down and hurried into an incompletion on fourth and 15.
"Last year, the first couple games a jump ball just wouldn't go our way. If a ball was in the air, the other team got it," Stenz said. "This year, our receivers are making huge plays and our DBs are knocking the ball down.
"We had a little rough patch in there, but as soon as we got it together and got our system figured out, we started closing those gaps and getting after the quarterback."
Notes: Scepaniak finished 22 of 35 passing for 320 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He also led NMU in rushing with 95 yards on 18 carries, including a touchdown. ... Jurasin gained 82 yards on 20 carries with a TD. ... Jessie led NMU in receiving, making 10 catches for 189 yards and a TD. Tucker had four catches for 65 yards and a TD. ... NMU was called for 11 penalties for 105 yards, including back-to-back pass interference calls at the end of the first half that resulted in two untimed downs for Findlay. ... Despite outgaining Findlay at halftime in total yards, 293-152, Findlay's offense won in the end, 592-507.