MARQUETTE, Mich. - The Wildcats are poised to take a leap in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC) standings this season. Many of the key components are in place to make this happen. NMU should be a better team than last year with all the new pieces and experience coming together. The Northern Michigan University football team is coming off a disappointing 2-8 campaign in 2008. The season began well for the Wildcats as they defeated Northwood in the first game of the season (30-7) in the Superior Dome, but then dropped the next six games. NMU would not pick up its second win of the season until Oct. 25 when the ‘Cats defeated Findlay (29-21). Bernie Anderson returns for his fourth year directing the ‘Cats. Last year many youngsters found their way onto the field for some quality playing time. That should provide the foundation to bounce back in 2009. Many of the key personnel will be seniors as they want to go out with a successful season.
According Anderson, the 2008 squad learned from experience. “Last year was a tough year for us,” said Anderson. “We learned valuable lessons that will carry forward into the 2009 season.” Both of NMU’s two victories last season came at home. Anderson feels that the ‘Cats are improved in three areas: the offseason program, the summer preparation and depth in personnel.
NMU finished 2008 tied for ninth in the GLIAC with Northwood. The ‘Cats were eighth in the GLIAC in scoring offense (20.8 avg/g) and 11th in scoring defense (32.0 avg/g). In total offense, NMU averaged a little over 330 yards a game (330.5 avg/g) for eighth while on the other side of the ball the team yielded 400.0 yards of total defense to finish ninth in the conference. The ‘Cats rushing and passing offenses were both eighth in the conference (141.0 yds/g rushing and 189.5 yds/g passing). Defensively NMU must improve on rushing defense as the ‘Cats were 11th (194.2 yds/g). NMU was seventh in pass defense (205.8 yds/g).
Entering last season the question mark was who was going to take over for Buddy Rivera. Three quarterbacks saw the majority of the time with Carter Kopach appearing in all 10 games. He ended the season with 1,190 yards passing on 124-225-11 with nine touchdowns. Ben Hempel threw for 593 yards on 30-50-1 with six touchdowns. Matt Blanchard appeared in eight games and had 75 yards in the air on 4-8-0. Carter and Hempel return for the 2009 season. A dark horse in the quarterback race could come from junior college transfer Brad McClellen.
“We return most everybody on offense. We lost a couple of receivers, but we have some good people returning,” said Anderson. “The offensive line depth is a concern.”
Two of the top three receivers from last year return for the ‘Cats. Zach Nichols led the 2008 team with 45 catches, 438 yards and four touchdowns. Dustin Brancheau was third on the team with 27 receptions for 271 yards. Anderson feels both Nichols and Brancheau are impact players.
Gone from last year is Dan Elmore who had 34 receptions for a team-high 492 yards and a team-leading six touchdowns. Four of the top five receivers had 20 or more receptions in 2008.
Mark Bossuah was the leading ground gainer for the ‘Cats in 2008. He had 660 yards on 124 carries in an injury-filled year. Two years ago he was second in the GLIAC with 1,285 yards. Brennan VanEffen, who saw time towards the end of the season last year, was second on the team with 237 yards on 44 carries. VanEffen rushed for a career-high 133 yards on 29 carries in the final game of the year at Indianapolis. In the last two games, VanEffen accounted for 37 of his carries and 217 yards.
Three seniors will anchor the offensive line for the Northern. Jack Rustman at center, Nicholas Owens at one of the guard spots and Jonathan Otto at a tackle are the main fixtures. The other positions along the line could be filled by Blake Crider, Mike Levy, Jason Dumont and Luke Carlson. “The offensive line is solid with starters,” said Anderson.
Nathan Yelk returns to direct the defense. He was a second-team all-GLIAC selection last year and led the ‘Cats with 98 total tackles (61 solo and 37 assisted). Yelk was named to the Consensus Draft Services Preseason 2009 DII all-american team and was also selected NMU’s 2008 MVP. He registered six tackles-for-loss (-29 yards), two sacks (-14 yards) and an interception last year.
The ‘Cats went out and added to the defense with transfers to fill some holes. NMU brought in linebackers and safeties. Added to the linebacking group were Anthony Echols, Demitri Stewart and Eric Wells. The defensive backfield now includes junior college transfer Junior Michel. ‘We will have more depth and experience coming out of there than we did last season,” said Anderson.
The defensive line finds returning Daniel Catalano and Jacob Reimer at tackles and Matt Forward at nose guard. Catalano ended the 2008 campaign with 22 total tackles (13 solo and nine assisted) while Reimer had 32 (15 solo and 17 assisted) and Forward 15 (eight solo and seven assisted).
John Blessing and Scott Avery are back manning the defensive end spots. Blessing had 41 total tackles (24 solo and 17 assisted). He also had six tackles-for-loss (-22 yards). Avery chipped in with 34 total tackles last year (25 solo and nine assisted). He had team-highs with six tackles-for-loss (-44 yards) and a three sacks (-29 yards). Ricky Neaves saw time defensively and recorded 23 total tackles (12 solo and 11 assisted) with three tackles-for-loss (-14 yards). Zach Gauthier, who missed some time because of injuries last year, is expected back. He tallied 45 total tackles (23 solo and 22 assisted).
Roaming the linebacking area with Yelk is returnee Mike Boren. He had 17 total tackles in 2008 (14 solo and three assisted). Edwin Knoblock also saw time with the linebacking corps. He had 19 total tackles (eight solo and 11 assisted).
The ‘Cats will have to fill two spots in the defensive backfield. Returning starters are Andrew Strobel (free safety) and Marcus Tribble (corner back). Strobel was second on the team last year in total tackles with 67 (48 solo and 19 assisted). Tribble was fourth on the team in total tackles with 48 (37 solo and 11 assisted) and he had five tackles-for-loss (-10 yards). DJ Oke and Nicholas Devault both saw time in the backfield and could find their way into the mix this year.
The defensive unit picked off eight passes last year. Gauthier led the way with two picks while six others had one each. The ‘Cats should be improved on the defensive side of the ball as they enter the second year under the system brought in by defensive coordinator Randy Awrey.
Special teams could play an important part in the success of the ‘Cats in 2009. Garrett Peck handled all the punting chores last year and averaged almost 39 yards a boot (38.6 avg). Anderson feels he was one of the better punters in the GLIAC. Anthony Leandri and Jon Laue took care of the extra point and field goal duties. Leandri was 3-7 in field goal with his longest being from 40 yards against Findlay. He was also 16-18 in extra points. Laue was 2-3 in field goals with his longest being from 24 yards at Wayne State. He connected on five of his seven extra point attempts. Laue handled the majority of the kickoff duties and averaged 58.0 yards a kick. Rockne Belmonte, a transfer from Eastern Michigan, could also get some playing time.
“This was another part of the game that needed to improve a little bit,” said Anderson. “I think that we have the people to do it now.”
It looks like as Grand Valley State is the team Northern and the other GLIAC schools will have to catch for the top spot. Ashland, Michigan Tech, Saginaw Valley State and Wayne State all finished in the upper half of the conference race last year.
The ‘Cats hope to be the team that surprises everyone in 2009.
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