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Hoping to bite back

NMU faces toughest test at No. 2 Ferris State

Davenport's Kendall Sawyer, left, tips a Northern Michigan University pass intended for wide receiver Ryan Knight, right, in the fourth quarter of the Wildcats' Homecoming game on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at the Superior Dome in Marquette. Knight got his hands on the ball but couldn't make the catch. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

MARQUETTE — At this moment, the Northern Michigan University football team has nothing to lose.

That’s the kind of attitude NMU is taking with it while heading downstate this weekend to face No. 2 Ferris State. The Wildcats know that the odds are stacked against them against the powerful Bulldogs, so they’re heading to Big Rapids loose and are looking forward to lining up against, arguably, the best NCAA Division II team in the country.

“I look at it as a great opportunity for us,” Northern head coach Kyle Nystrom said Tuesday. “I don’t worry about this or that. I look at it as a great opportunity to make a big bang and that’s how we look at this game.

“They’re strong everywhere. Their offensive line is better than I’ve ever seen it. Their running backs are phenomenal. Marvin (Campbell) is still back there. They got two other guys that are great when they get in.

“They’ve got (quarterback) Jayru (Campbell) and he’s the best player in college football in Division II. He won the Harlon Hill (Trophy) last year and he’s pretty good.”

The Hill Trophy is the Division II equivalent of the better-known Division I Heisman Trophy.

“Their wideouts are very good and their slots are very good and they’ve got a lot of them back,” the NMU coach said. “(Davontae) Harrington and Dion Earls, they were all there when I was there and that was a long time ago, and they’re still playing.”

Nystrom was a defensive coordinator at Ferris through 2016, when he took the head coaching position at NMU.

“Their defense, I don’t know if they lost a starter from last year,” Nystrom said. “They’re greased up and good.

“If you go into Central Washington and put up those kind of points (Ferris won 62-28) and you go to Ashland and do what they did to Ashland (a 28-13 win), they’re like the Clemson of D-II.

“We’re going to have fun getting ready to go play them and this is a great opportunity for us. I look forward to going back and I think our players are looking forward to going to play them and have a great opportunity to make a big bang if we can do things really well.”

The Wildcats did some things really well but didn’t in other areas on Saturday against Davenport as they were dealt a 21-7 Homecoming defeat. Nystrom liked what his defense did for the most part, but wasn’t pleased with his offense.

“We were in the game all the way until we didn’t get the onside kick,” he said. “I thought the defense played very well.

“We gave up one long ball in the first series and that was more of a coverage call, weakness thing. It wasn’t that Antonio (Howard Jr.) couldn’t run with the guy, he was just a little late on reacting to the route he was getting. He just lost a step for a little bit and it took him a little bit longer to regain that step. He can run, Howard can run. To keep the box a little bit tighter, sometimes I’ll do that…. So after that play, I went away from that coverage and played things a little more basic. And we were fine. We were really good on defense for the rest of the day.”

“The other big play that we gave up was that counter that they ran…. The kid made a real nice cut in there.

“Those two plays are the only plays I regret in calls. (Out of) the 70 plays we had and I feel good about 68 of the calls on defense. I always want perfect, but when you look at it, that’s football.

“If I got two calls I regret, I can live with that. Sometimes, the players have got to execute a call no matter what when they play for you, but I was happy with the defense. We gave up five explosive plays. Three passes and two runs for the whole game. So we’re playing good defense.

“Offense we were just a disaster most of the day. Their (the Panthers) inside, their three-technique and their nose gave us fits all day and our ends ran around us. Their secondary, they covered us and we couldn’t breathe. And then when we did have a chance to catch a ball, it would’ve had to be a big catch, but we’ve got to make those plays more often than we don’t make them.

“We were off in the throwing game and we had some routes that we didn’t take advantage of throwing the ball to and when we did throw the ball to the right route, we had some errant throws.

“So we’ve got to play better in the box. The offensive line’s got to be better and our quarterback’s got to play better and our receivers got to get open and they’ve got to make more big catches. I thought the running backs played really well.”

“Punt coverage was really good, especially compared to last year against them.”

In order to pull off a massive upset of Ferris, Nystrom said everybody will have to be at their very best.

“Everything perfect,” he said. “I’m going to have to be 100 percent. I’ve got no room for one or two wiggles. We’re going to have to execute on offense and we’re going to have to be really good.

“We’re going to have to play at a peak performance. Everyone is going to have to and things are going to have to go our way, but we’re going to have to make those breaks. They’re not going to fall into your lap.

“It’s possible and I’m looking forward to it. It’s fun to go play the best. I have expectations and our players know that. I have very high expectations of them. We keep fighting and moving forward and we’ll go play.

“I look forward to it. You’ve got to play the cards you’re dealt. We’re getting better as a football team and it’ll be really good for us to play this game.

“You’ve got to bite back when you don’t do things right. You’ve got to bite back and this is the perfect weekend for doing that. I really expect us to play well and we’re going to have fun going into this game.

“It’s going to be homecoming at Ferris and we’ll kick off at 3 (p.m.) and there’ll be a lot of noise and there will be a lot of boos for the old green and gold, but hey, you’ve got to ride that and make it a plus.”

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