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Starting with a bang

NMU starts season with home win over McKendree

NMU's Benjamin Loutsis completes a pass from Ryan Johnson for a touchdown in the fourth quarter Saturday at the Superior Dome. Defending on the play is McKendree's Jhaidyn Brown. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

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 it did so in convincing fashion Saturday, smashing McKendree 30-9.

The NMU defense picked off two Bearcats passes, and 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 MU 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. If you look at the defense right now, a lot of the people who are playing, the only one that’s going to be done with his eligibility is Demarious (Wright). The rest of them are all coming back and the majority of them for quite a few years, so that’s promising. I’m really happy to see that.”

Heading into the second half, NMU had a small 10-9 advantage, but with just under seven minutes left in the third quarter, the Wildcats took control and didn’t look back. Northern started that possession deep in its own territory, but a couple long first downs, combined with a costly MU face mask 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 touchdown. With the extra point, NMU led 17-9.

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

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 then fought through two tackles to make it into 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.”

Regarding his own performance, Johnson felt like he’s getting back into a groove after missing almost all last season with an injury.

“It feels good and I feel confident out there, but the game still needs to slow down a little bit,” he said. “There’s a lot going on out there to understand, but I felt comfortable out there and the protection was great and I’m having a lot of fun out there.”

When asked about his quarterback’s day, Nystrom said that he started a little slow because he hasn’t played a game for a year, but that he liked how Johnson came around eventually.

“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. So he came around in the second half and it was nice to see him make that long ball throw to Benny in the corner of the end zone to put that thing away.”

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

The Wildcats couldn’t stop the Bearcats on their next possession though as MU quarterback Turner Pullen found Jacob Bachman for a 28-yard touchdown. However, the extra point was shanked wide, and the Bearcats only led 6-0.

Northern answered back a few minutes later. A nice kickoff return from Deandre Caldwell brought the ball to the MU 35 and Daniel Riser later drilled a 22-yard field goal to get the Wildcats on the board with 1:15 left in the quarter. The NMU defense then came up big again as Jacob Ager fell, but got up and picked off a Bearcats pass. On the next play, Johnson hit Knight with a 28-yard touchdown pass, just inside the sideline with nine seconds left. With Riser’s extra point, Northern took a 10-6 advantage into the second quarter.

The next quarter was quiet for the most part offensively. The Bearcats cut their deficit to one on a 22-yard Josh Lazaro field goal with 7:16 left and that was it as NMU continued to stifle the MU attack. The Wildcats just missed bringing down a Bearcats runner for a safety late in the half and Northern went into the locker room on a good note with a one-point lead.

Northern heads to Texas Permian Basin next week for a 7 p.m. 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.