Wildcats looking for first win

After two road losses, NMU gridders try to grab victory at home

Northern Michigan University offense player Devontae Stine, right, runs after the ball pursued by defenseman Karim Thomas during the annual spring game Saturday afternoon, April 8, 2017, at the Superior Dome. (Journal photo by Rachel Oakley)

MARQUETTE — The first couple of weeks haven’t been easy for the Northern Michigan University football team.

Northern has been blown out in both games and the same defensive issues that plagued the Wildcats last season seem to have carried over to this year.

In the opener against Angelo State (Texas), NMU was torched for 660 total yards and last week, it gave up 637 to No. 2 Ferris State.

However, first-year head coach Kyle Nystrom knew when he took the job that this season was going to be a work in progress. In an interview on Monday, he said it’s going to take some time for the Wildcats to get to where they want to be.

“Right now, we’re struggling on the back end and we’re just not matching up personnel-wise with some of the things that we have to defend,” Nystrom said. “The problem is if you soften up the (pass) coverage so much where you can handle that, the box is loose and they can run the ball all over on you.

“Those two teams (Angelo and Ferris) can run the ball well, too. So you have to pick your poison. We didn’t handle our verticals (pass routes) very well and stop the big plays. That’s going to be through roster development. We’ll really be able to handle that when we develop the roster, but it’s definitely been difficult.”

How difficult exactly? When Nystrom started in the off-season, he didn’t have a quarterback, so he had to try to convert some wide receivers — Jaranta Lewis and Latrell Giles — to the position and he was also missing a placekicker.

“When I got here, there was one quarterback and he was a freshman,” he said. “There weren’t any kickers. Not one. We also had a couple cornerbacks that were recruited as wideouts and have now been shifted to corner.

“That’s not the progression of college football. So it’s been a battle and we picked up two DBs (defensive backs) when St. Joe’s (Indiana) closed its doors.

“If we didn’t have those two, the cupboard (would) be even more empty. Until we match up with the people we have to run with, it’s going to be rough. So that’s where we’re at.”

The Wildcats struggled in many areas last week in their 42-10 loss to Ferris State, but Nystrom knew that his new team was in for a battle with his former squad as the Bulldogs returned more seniors on defense than NMU has seniors on its entire team.

“Ferris is extremely exceptional on defense,” he said. “They have 14 seniors and they start 11 and rotate in three more. I don’t even have that many (seniors) on the roster and I coached that defense for two years, so those are all my guys.

“They are all good and they play well in the box and they force you to throw the ball. When we’re not consistent at quarterback at now, that hurts. We had to take Jaranta and Latrell as wideouts and made them quarterbacks.

“We had one quarterback as a true freshman, but he had surgery in the summer on an elbow with a screw in it and he can’t do anything. So now here we sit and we have to make it work.”

The good thing for NMU is that things could dramatically turn around this weekend with NCAA Division II and GLIAC newcomer Davenport arriving for homecoming. The Panthers have lived up to their rookie status so far.

Like the Wildcats, Davenport is winless at 0-3. The Panthers have looked flat-out bad in each game; consequently, they sit last in the GLIAC in most team categories and are ninth in points allowed.

If you’re looking for a player to watch for on offense, he’ll be hard to find. However, the Panthers do have the top three tackle leaders in the league in Brent Showers, C.J. Thornton and Kye Black. Showers also is in a three-way tie for first in tackles per game (nine) along with Wildcats Pat Ryan and Demarious Wright.

“Going from (their previous affiliation with the) NAIA, your academic restrictions are almost zero to none,” Nystrom said. “So they have some good guys there. There’s a lot of pieces of Ferris’ offense in there, too.

“The skill set between us is about a draw and it comes down to preparation and who wants to play harder. Who wants to be tougher and execute better?

“That’s what it will come down to and we will prepare for it to be us.”

With the distinct possibility of a win this weekend, Nystrom feels confident in his team and thinks things will continue to improve.

“I thought the D(efensive)-line played pretty well (last week) and now the rest of it needs to come together,” he said. “We just can’t be out there that long. The offense has to sustain drives and produce better and keep the defense off the field.

“This three (downs)-and-out game isn’t for us. You can’t do it over and over. You can’t have holding penalties and shoot yourself in the foot.

“That’s how we’re playing offense right now. We can’t have second-and-14 or third-and-15. We can’t get into those situations, so that’s our battle.

“The good thing is that we’re playing with good effort and some toughness. We got better from Game 1 to Game 2, but the first two weeks have been ugly.

“Now we get to play at home, so hopefully we can get better and win this next game. We’re a work in progress and that’s OK.

“It wasn’t any different than what I knew it was going to be. I knew it was going to be like this.”

Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the Superior Dome.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.