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Northern Michigan University Wildcats open football season at home Saturday

Former Marquette Senior High School player Payton Muljo, left, keeps defender Edward Pierson from reaching quarterback Ryan Johnson, center, during the Northern Michigan University spring football game in the Superior Dome on April 20. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

Saturday: McKendree at NMU, 1 p.m., Superior Dome; Radio: WUPT The Point 100.3 FM

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MARQUETTE — The wait is finally over for Northern Michigan University football fans as the Wildcats kick off their season in the Superior Dome on Saturday afternoon.

NMU opens the year with McKendree, a team that it’ll be looking for revenge against as the Wildcats lost a tight game to the Bearcats on the road last fall. Northern had to play catch-up through the second half and actually scored a touchdown as time expired in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they ended up six points short of tying the game.

“That game was very frustrating for us,” NMU head coach Kyle Nystrom said Tuesday. “I think the coaches take things a little bit more personally than the players do because the players are active.

“But I’ve conveyed that message pretty well to the team on what I expect out of them. We’re at a point right now with the program where we’re going into our third year, and our players, they take to heart when we talk to them. I think they’re pretty serious on listening and trying to please the coaching staff.

“You never know until they get lined up, but I want them to play hard and I want them to play right on the line and I want (us) to be a good, physical football team. Our players want that and obviously, the rest of our staff wants that. That’s how we work and that’s what we preach and that’s what we coach.”

The toughest thing going into Saturday is that the Wildcats don’t have any new film on the Bearcats and are basically preparing for the game on what they know from last year’s game. So Nystrom said they’ll have to adjust on what they see over the course of the game. He did say that McKendree did have some key players leave like what happened to his own squad.

“They’ve got to replace people, too,” Nystrom said. “They’ve got to replace a couple wideouts and a tight end that was a good player for them. A couple linemen and their quarterback, obviously.

“Forecasting what quarterback we’re going to get, there’s no film on him. So we’ll go in and play and call our schemes and do our things and go from there.

“It’s like that every first game. You kind of prepare for what you know and whatever shows up, you’ve got to adjust on the fly. If you watched last night’s (Monday’s college) game (on TV), it’s a pretty good example. Louisville really ran the ball well in the first half in those first two series and I’m sure it was something different than what Notre Dame had known.

“After they got to adjust it up, the game kind of turned a little bit and the takeaways helped.

“For the first game we want to be good at getting lined up and we want to have good tempo as far as getting communicated and getting the play off to a good start. Getting lined up right and looking at the right things and running fast and running hard. To know where we’re going and we want to be crisp.

“For defense, we want to tackle well and we want to eliminate explosive plays as much as we can and we want to create some takeaways.

“We’ve got stay away from penalties. I told the offense yesterday, we’ve got to get lined up and get into good tempo fashion. You’ve got to block, we’ve got to have ball security, we’ve got to be productive at running the ball and setting up the pass game.

“We got to really define it down to the real basic true fundamentals in the first game, because if you don’t do well with your fundamentals, you just make it really hard to win. If you do really well fundamentally, you have a good chance to win.”

As far as what Wildcats’ fans can expect to see from Northern, Nystrom has his lineup pretty much set. Ryan Johnson will start at quarterback and he’ll have some quality wideouts to throw to in Ravon Johnson, Ryan Knight, Ben Loutsis and freshman Tyauan Cox.

Defensively, Nystrom said his defensive line is “much improved” and the linebackers are all back with all of them probably seeing playing time. There will see some newcomers in the secondary, but it’ll be anchored by veteran safety Troy Mayon.

What will be missing is star running back Jake Mayon, who graduated after setting NMU records in career rushing yards (4,220) and single-season rushing yards (1,505). That leaves a big hole in the Wildcats’ offense, but new offensive coordinator Dan Fodrocy thinks that there’s potentially players who can fill Mayon’s shoes.

“It’s hard to replace somebody like Jake,” Fodrocy said. “I got to see him from an opposing coach standpoint (at Saginaw Valley State) and the things that I thought about him was that he played really hard and he was tough.

“I think those things have carried over to the guys and you can see it in the practice film. Somebody like Deandre (Caldwell) and somebody like Sebastion (Toland), who didn’t play last year, just being around that, I think that’s going to carry over.

“There’s always going to be some subtle changes here and there with how I coach the tailbacks versus who coached them last year. Those are the changes that I have to work through. They play tough and they play hard, just like Jake did, and I got to see that from the opposite side of it.

“Can you replace his production? That’s going to be really hard, but at the end of the day, he had to earn his stripes at one time, too, in his career and hopefully, those guys take those fundamental things away from him to help us have some success on the field starting this Saturday.”

Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. in the Superior Dome.

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