HOUGHTON - The Michigan Tech University football program has fielded two very different teams this season.
There was the one that dominated all facets of the game in victories over Tiffin and Walsh. And then there was the squad that struggled badly in the second half in a loss to Findlay and for all 60 minutes in a demoralizing defeat at Grand Valley St.
Within the opening minutes Saturday afternoon, it was clear which version of the Black and Gold suited up to protect the Miner's Cup against rival Northern Michigan University.
Northern Michigan University’s Thomas McNamara (25) tackles a Michigan Tech University player with the help of Wildcat teammate Marcus Lee during their Miner’s Cup game in Houghton on Saturday. Tech won, 31-7. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette photo)
Holding the Wildcats to 48 yards in the first half with under eight minutes possessing the ball, the Huskies jumped on their Upper Peninsula rivals for a 17-0 lead before the break, and extended that margin to 24-0 on their first drive of the second half.
From there it was just playing out the clock - a Tech specialty with an offense well suited for ball control - to end the game with a 31-7 victory and a record-fourth straight win over Northern.
"It's the first senior class at either school that can say that," Tech coach Tom Kearly said. "So that's big."
Added sophomore safety and Lake Linden native Brett Gervais: "We were talking about that all week, how we needed to play well for the seniors. We couldn't let them graduate with a loss to Northern. And I hope when I'm a senior, I can say the same thing."
After the teams exchanged punts to tepidly start the affair, the Huskies drove 96 yards in 14 plays to punch in the first touchdown of the game on a 1-yard Cole Welch plunge.
Backed up at their own 4-yard line, Tech quarterback Tyler Scarlett found junior wide receiver Brandon Cowie for 18-yards to gain some breathing room and again found Cowie six plays later to convert on a third-and-10.
It was a combination that would haunt NMU all day.
Geared up to stop the run - Tech got just 120 yards from their running backs on 37 carries - the Wildcats dared Scarlett and his young wide receivers to beat man-coverage on the outside.
The junior finished with 254 yards on 18-of-31 throws, but was personally responsible for eight of the Huskies' 11 third-down conversions with either his arm or his legs.
"If they're playing two-deep (safeties) with man, then we're going to run the tailback into the flat with four vertical (routes) and those holes for him to scramble open up," Kearly said.
"Scarlett may not be the best running (quarterback), but he's quick enough to take advantage of those situations and move the chains."
When Scarlett wasn't picking up first downs on the ground, he was likely finding Cowie open by several yards down field.
The 6-foot-3 wide receiver finished with 113 yards on six catches (five coming in the first half), including a 36-yard go-route to set up a Charlie Leffingwell touchdown run.
It was the third straight game of over 100 yards for Cowie, who converted to receiver this season after two years backing up Scarlett at quarterback.
"Every wide receiver wants to see man coverage," Cowie said. "Because then. it's just about you making a play. And if you get open, Scarlett is going to get you the ball."
Northern looked sharp for one drive in the third quarter, moving the ball 80 yards - 36 of which came on a flea-flicker pass caught by Marcus Tucker - to set up a 16-yard touchdown burst from Keon Collier.
The Wildcats gained just 10 first downs (25 for the Huskies), converted on 4-of-13 third down attempts and turned the ball over four times (two picks, two fumbles).
The turnovers were especially crucial as they gave the ball back to a Huskies' offense built to keep it, resulting in a 39-to-21 minute difference in time of possession.
"As a defense, we just want to get the ball back in the hands of our offense, because we know each time they score it is going to make it easier on us, make (Northern) more one dimensional," Gervais, who led the team with eight tackles and a fumble recovery, said.
"When we get them on third down - we call it the money down - or make them take a minus play on first or second, we just want to go make a play then."