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Start with a bang: Northern Michigan University opens football season with 30-9 home win over McKendree

Northern Michigan University’s Demarious Wright, front, attempts to intercept a pass intended for McKendree’s Matt Cole in the fourth quarter Saturday at the Superior Dome. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

“Wasn’t it nice to play defense?” — Kyle Nystrom, head coach, NMU football

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MARQUETTE — The drought has come to an end in Marquette.

For the first time in three years, the Northern Michigan University football team opened its season with a victory and did so in convincing fashion Saturday, smashing McKendree 30-9.

The NMU defense picked off two Bearcat passes, while quarterback Ryan Johnson threw three touchdown passes to lead the ‘Cats offensively. The win also provided a bit of revenge for the Wildcats, who fell to McKendree last season in their opener.

Northern head coach Kyle Nystrom was proud of his team’s performance and felt like his defense took a big step forward.

“Wasn’t it nice to play defense?” he said. “Like something that looks really good and is physical? There were some good hits out there. We got some good hits on people and that’s the best I’ve seen Northern play defense in a long time. Not being here, but at other places, too, when I got the chance to watch them. It was fun to watch them play that way.

“We’re not a finished product. Don’t get me wrong. But there is improvement and these guys are going to be around here a long time.”

NMU led just 10-9 at halftime, but beginning about halftway through the third quarter, the Wildcats took control.

Northern started a possession deep in its own territory, but a couple long first downs, combined with a costly MU facemask penalty, got the Wildcats in prime field position. On the Bearcats 24-yard-line, freshman running back Tyshon King sprinted untouched up the middle for a TD. With the extra point, NMU led 17-9.

Six minutes later, the Wildcats padded their lead. After Tavion McCarthy picked off an MU pass and returned the ball to the Bearcats 29, NMU got on the scoreboard again when Johnson found tight end Mitch Heaton in the back of the end zone. With the extra point, Northern built a double-digit advantage at 24-9.

NMU pretty much put the game away with 10:48 left in the fourth when Johnson hit an open Ben Loutsis with a pass near the MU sideline. Loutsis fought through two tackles to make it to the end zone and the Wildcats extended their advantage to 30-9.

“Ben, Ryan (Knight), Ravon (Johnson) all had a heck of a day,” Johnson said. “It was fun. They ran good routes and there was beautiful pass protection. The offensive line did a great job and it was fun to get back out there and compete. It’s great to get these guys back.”

When asked about his quarterback’s day, Nystrom said that he started a little slow but liked how Johnson came around.

“He’s been out for a long time and you can do the practicing all you want,” Nystrom said. “You can practice as much as Hellmann’s has mayonnaise. It’s not the same as a game.”

The second half may have gone well, but Wildcats didn’t get off to a good start as they fumbled the ball away on their second play from scrimmage deep in their own territory. However, the NMU defense provided a lift as it stuffed MU at the 1-yard line on fourth down.

Northern heads to Texas-Permian Basin for a 7 p.m. EDT kickoff Saturday. The Wildcats defeated the Falcons 27-22 last year in Marquette.

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