MARQUETTE - After dropping two of its first three games by giving up 40-plus points via the big play, the Northern Michigan University football team decided its was going to make Ashland University work for its points Saturday at the Superior Dome.
If the Eagles were to post 40-plus points on the Wildcats, they'd have score via extended drives of 10 or more plays.
Ashland did just that.
Ashland punt returner Tyler McFarlin is tackled by Northern Michigan’s Nolan Davenport (59), Thomas McNamara (25), Evan Bishop (36), Trever Kruzel (32) during the second quarter at the Superior Dome on Saturday. (Journal photo by Matt Keiser)
"We went in with a defensive game plan that was indicative of forcing them to go 10 or more plays for touchdowns, with the idea that if you do that, consequently, they will turn it over," NMU first-year head coach Chris Ostrowsky said.
"It's very difficult for a college offense on any level to go one, two, three, four, five, six drives of 12, 13, 14 plays, which is what they did."
The Eagles spoiled the Wildcats' defensive game plan and Homecoming celebration by scoring four of its six unanswered touchdowns on drives of 10 or more plays in a 42-13 GLIAC rout, with the other two scores coming on drives of nine and five plays.
Findlay only had one drive of 10-or-more plays in the Week 1 thrashing of Northern 45-10, with four of the six touchdowns scored in Ohio coming on drives of five or less plays.
Last week at Ohio Dominican, NMU gave up three touchdowns on five plays total in the second quarter in a 47-7 defeat.
"We became better leaps and bounds from last week," Ostrowsky said. "I thought we did a great job defensively of executing the plan, which was the first time we've done that this season."
While the growth of the defense could be argued based on the scoreboard, there's no arguing the improvement of redshirt freshman quarterback Ryan Morley from a week ago.
After turning the ball over five times at Ohio Dominican and completing only 41 percent of his passes, Morley rebounded strong by hitting sophomore wide receiver Julian Gaines for a 77-yard touchdown on the opening play of scrimmage to put Northern up 7-0 with 15 ticks having run off the clock.
"The first touchdown pass was definitely a stress reliever," Morley said. "It took a lot of pressure off of us to get stuff going right away (and) get seven points on the board early."
Morley finished 15 of 24 passing for 164 yards. He finished with two touchdowns after connecting with junior running back Trever Kruzel in the end zone from 11 yards out on the final play of the game.
The touchdowns were the first ever for Morley in the Superior Dome. But more importantly, he accomplished another collegiate first on Saturday - his first game without an interception.
"Today is a great example of why Ryan is our starting quarterback," Ostrowsky said. "Offensively we talked about protecting the football, not throwing it to (Ashland). I thought Ryan did that."
Between the first play from scrimmage and last drive of the game, the Wildcats' offense accomplished little, however.
The offense only had two first downs at halftime and while it finished with 12 for the game, seven came on the final drive with only 3:08 to play and the outcome no longer in doubt.
The 238 yards of total offense by Northern is also deceiving when the 77-yard touchdown pass to Gaines is subtracted, along with the final 96-yard drive.
That left 65 yards gained between the 14:45 mark of the first quarter and 3:08 mark of the fourth.
"We played the best defense in the league," Ostrowsky said. "They beat Wayne State two weeks ago 7-0. They were really prepared, did a great job and they matched us up well."
As Ashland built its 28-7 halftime advantage, Northern had the opportunity to keep pace with the Eagles.
Unfortunately for Northern, Ashland sacked those chances via the blitz three straight times on third down, halting three drives around midfield, including two in Eagles' territory.
"They were blitzing a lot and we were focusing on protecting the ball," said Morley, who lost two fumbles and threw three interceptions against Ohio Dominican. "Last week, (Ohio Dominican) blitzed a lot on third down too and we made some mistakes that killed us.
"My main job (Saturday) was to worry about protecting the ball and letting our defense do the work from there."
The defense didn't do the work, though.
The Eagles racked up 453 yards of total offense, with senior QB Taylor Housewright leading the assault with four touchdowns on 23 of 29 passing for 256 yards.
Only when Housewright took a seat, giving way to backup senior QB Matt Skubik, did the NMU defense stop the bleeding with an interception by junior safety Brandon Parson on an overthrown ball.
"This was our best week, regardless of another 40 points (scored against us)," said Eddie Knoblock, Northern's senior inside linebacker and defensive captain. "There were no long plays, not too long. Everything they got, they earned. You can't be too mad about that."
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.