NMU football: Wildcats defense sheds black jerseys ahead of Miner’s Cup battle with Michigan Tech

MARQUETTE – Members of the Northern Michigan University football defense worked hard throughout the preseason in hopes of earning a black jersey in practice.

At the time, the black jerseys represented the Wildcats’ new attitude under first-year defensive coordinator Joe Ballard and were an award for flying to the ball.

This week, however, NMU defenders want nothing to do with those black jerseys, because they no longer symbolize the Wildcats’ new attitude.

This week, the black only reminds the defense of is its Upper Peninsula rivals from Michigan Tech.

“The black jerseys are gone,” said NMU senior linebacker and captain Morgan Stenz, healthy this week after missing back-to-back games with an injured leg.

“We’re wearing all white. We’re just trying to be as different as we can. We’re going to go up there and play intense, smash-mouth football like they’ve never seen before.”

The Wildcats and Huskies will renew their rivalry at 1 p.m. Saturday at Sherman Field in Houghton. It will be the 86th meeting between the two schools and 12th edition of the Miner’s Cup.

Northern (1-3 overall, 1-3 in GLIAC) leads the all-time series by a game, 41-40-5. But since the introduction of the Miner’s Cup in 2002, Tech (2-2, 2-2) has won eight of the last 11 meetings.

The last time Northern won the Miner’s Cup was in 2009 in Houghton. The Huskies have won the last three, including back-to-back years in Marquette in 2010 and 2011.

For a native “Yooper” like NMU junior running back Wyatt Jurasin out of Ishpeming High School, Saturday’s game is an important one – just like tonight’s battle between his Hematites and the Negaunee Miners.

“There are a lot of U.P. kids I played against in high school at Tech, like my good friend (Paul) Kuoppala (of Iron Mountain),” Jurasin said. “We shared defensive player of the year in high school and there has always been a bit of a rivalry there.

“I will be at that Ishpeming-Negaunee game and hopefully, we can bring home the Miners’ Cup on Saturday.”

Last year’s college game at the Superior Dome proved to be a turning point for the Northern football program despite losing the game 41-17 and its starting quarterback at the time, Ryan Morley, to a concussion.

Cody Scepaniak, now a senior, replaced Morley in the third quarter with the ‘Cats trailing 34-3 and led the offense on a pair of touchdown drives that pulled NMU to within three scores with 10:25 to play.

A blocked punt returned by Tech for a touchdown sealed the win, but NMU went on to take three of its last five games with Scepaniak under center, starting with a victory the following week over Grand Valley State at the Dome.

“That was a great example of a turning point for us in the program,” NMU head coach Chris Ostrowsky said about last year’s Miners’ Cup loss.

“Since that moment, there has been times we’ve been really, really good. But there have also been times we haven’t been.

Some we’ve won, and some we’ve lost,” he added. “If we can create some consistency, we have a chance.”

The Wildcats haven’t been able to parlay their strong finish in 2012 to a hot start in 2013.

The ‘Cats opened the year with a 41-31 home win over Findlay (3-2, 1-2), but have lost the last three games to Ohio Dominican at home (4-0, 5-0), Ashland on the road (2-3, 2-2) and last week at home to Hillsdale (2-3, 2-1).

On top of that, Scepaniak was lost for the season with a leg injury in the loss to Ashland, moving junior transfer Dustin Thomas into the starting job in just his first season at Northern.

Thomas will make his second start Saturday for NMU after completing 20 of 39 passes for 216 yards, no touchdowns and an interception against Hillsdale. Thomas also ran for 131 yards and a TD in the loss.

“When you change your quarterback as much as we’ve had to, your personality changes right away,” Ostrowsky said. “There are a wide-range of things, such as the cadence, the rhythm of the cadence, his eyes and how he sees the defense.

“I think they’re adjusting well and it appears to be a whole lot better than it was at this point (of the week).”

The Huskies began the year 2-0 with victories over GLIAC South bottom dwellers Tiffin (1-4, 1-3) on the road and Walsh (1-4, 1-3) at home, but have since dropped their last two game, both on the road.

Tech was routed by Findlay 40-19 in Ohio and last week’s loss at Grand Valley State (4-1, 2-1) was even worse, 49-3.

“Probably the way we have played the last two weeks, this is the best team to be playing,” Tech coach Tom Kearly said. “Because if you can’t get up for these guys than you are going to have a hard time getting up for anybody. And the practices have been good all week.”