MARQUETTE - The Northern Michigan and Michigan Tech football programs couldn't be farther apart heading into a 1 p.m. Saturday battle for the Miner's Cup at the Superior Dome.
The Wildcats are stuck in the basement of the GLIAC North Division at 0-4 in league play and 1-4 overall.
Meanwhile, up in Houghton, the Huskies are a game back of first place at 3-1 after nearly rallying to beat the third-ranked team in NCAA Division II - according to the American Football Coaches Association - in Grand Valley State.
Northern Michigan University defensive linemen Zach Anderson (94) and Zach Pierson (14) stop Michigan Tech running back Akeem Cason in the backfield during the 2011 Miner’s Cup game on Nov. 12 at the Superior Dome in Marquette. (Journal file photo by Matt Keiser)
Despite the disparity in programs this season with NMU rebuilding and Tech aiming for an NCAA playoff berth, there's excitement among the green and gold inside the Superior Dome to recapture the traveling trophy that has eluded them each of the past two seasons.
"This game means a lot," Wildcat senior defensive tackle Zach Anderson said. "I went to high school with a buddy named Ryan Glaser (who went to Tech). He graduated last year. We had a lot of battles throughout the years. It's going to be different not playing against him this year."
Since the Miner's Cup was introduced to the rivalry - which dates back to 1920 - during the 2002 season, Tech has won seven of 10, including a 12-0 win in 2010 in Houghton and 21-18 in 2011 in Marquette.
NMU almost forced overtime last year when senior kicker Rockne Belmonte missed a 52-yard field goal with no time on the clock after the Huskies were penalized for roughing the passer on what was supposed to be the final play.
"We've compared it to a couple other venues," first-year NMU head coach Chris Ostrowsky said about the Upper Peninsula rivalry. "If you go to Texas, you have to beat Oklahoma. If you go to Florida, you have to beat Georgia. Obviously if you go to Michigan, you better beat Ohio State. Here at Northern, we have to beat Tech."
Statistically, the Wildcats appear to be a long shot at pulling the upset on their home artificial turf.
Northern ranks last in the GLIAC in scoring offense, last in total offensive yards, last in red zone offense, last on third-down conversions and second to last in rushing offense.
The Tech defense, on the other hand, leads the GLIAC in rushing defense. The only team better than the MTU defense on third down is Northwood.
Wildcat senior offensive lineman Jace Daniels of Escanaba said on Wednesday the 'Cats need to get senior running back Prince Young rolling in order to sustain drives and get the offense some rhythm.
"We can't be going downfield, marching downfield and then one person messes up their assignment," Daniels said. "That's what it has been on each drive.
"Somebody here, somebody there isn't doing their block, or not catching, or not throwing. We need everybody to be doing their thing 100 percent each drive."
After averaging 87.3 yards and 18.36 carries per game as a junior, Young is averaging 93.4 yards and 23.8 carries per game this season. His average yards per carry has dropped, however, from 4.8 to 3.9.
To match and exceed last year's total, Daniels said it's up to the line to create a clean alley from the senior back.
"We need to start blocking better, getting more movement on the ball," Daniels said. "He's a good north and south runner, so that's what we need to get him doing."
Like the offense, Northern's defense also sits on the opposite spectrum of Tech.
NMU's defense ranks last in the GLIAC in the red zone and is tied for last with Ferris State in turnover margin.
Tech's offense is the third-highest scoring offense in the GLIAC and ranks third in third-down conversions.
Sophomore quarterback Tyler Scarlett leads the Huskies' offense with 1,005 yards and nine touchdowns. He's completing 61.3 percent of his passes and only has one interception.
His favorite target, Matt Curtin, has 20 catches in four games for 333 yards and five touchdowns.
Anderson said the Wildcats will be focusing on the Tech rushing attack first and foremost, though.
MTU sophomore Charlie Leffingwell leads the Huskies in rushing with 229 yards on 47 carries with two touchdowns. He has split time with senior Cedrick Barber, who has 148 yards on 53 carries and three touchdowns.
Senior Akeem Cason, the reigning GLIAC Special Teams Player of the Week after returning a kickoff 98 yards for a score against GVSU, has 133 yards and three touchdowns on 24 rushes this season, giving him an average of 5.5 yards per touch.
"What we're focusing on is the run. We're focusing on the run first and pass second," Anderson said. "We're going back to our old ways.
"We're going back to blitzing. We're going to send four or five guys. We're not going to be dropping eight, rushing three. It's going to be almost a different team out there."
Notes: Junior halfback Trever Kruzel, junior wide receiver Christian Marble-King, junior offensive lineman James Bester and sophomore linebacker Wyatt Jurasin of Ishpeming are all out for the season with injuries, according to Ostrowsky. ... Young appeared in court Thursday morning for a probation violation stemming from a January arrest. Young pled guilty to contempt of court and his sentencing was delayed. Ostrowsky said Thursday following an afternoon team practice Young will play Saturday against Michigan Tech.
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.