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Northern faces defensive test in home opener

Two weeks ago, as the mid-Michigan sunset tinted Adrian’s Docking Stadium orange, Ohio Northern found itself in an all-too-familiar scenario.

After the Polar Bears led 21-16 heading into the fourth quarter, Adrian running back Emmanuel Stewart scampered into the endzone just two minutes into the period to take the lead.

ONU lost three games in the fourth quarter in 2016, resulting in a disappointing 5-5 finish. It had been on their mind all offseason. This couldn’t be happening again, could it?

Facing an Adrian team with nine seniors on defense, including All-Region defensive end Damon Fuller, in a hostile road environment, junior quarterback Will Freed marched the Polar Bears right back down the field.

They answered with a Christiaan Williams touchdown run to regain the lead, 24-21. And after another Adrian touchdown with 6:37 left, Northern responded once more with a Freed touchdown strike that all but sealed the deal.

The Polar Bears won, 35-31; but more than that, they established that they had learned from the 2016 season.

“To go on the road and to just find a way was huge for us,” head coach Dean Paul said. “In the fourth quarter, we just made plays when we had to on offense -- two key drives when we answered, and then the last drive to kill the clock. It was huge. That’s what good teams do.”

Ohio Northern will head into Saturday’s home opener against Heidelberg after two weeks of preparation, as the team’s bye week was last week.

Heidelberg will come to Ada after trouncing Olivet (Mich.) in week one, 40-24. Olivet won the MIAA, which Adrian competes in, last year.

Both the Polar Bears and Student Princes received votes in this week’s d3football.com Top 25, and the two schools swapped places in this summer’s Media Day preseason polls; the coaches picked Heidelberg to finish third and ONU fourth, while the media picked ONU third and Heidelberg fourth.

Notes from media day: ONU picked third, fourth

On Saturday, a central focus for the Polar Bears will be on the defensive side of the ball. While ONU gave up 401 yards to Adrian in week one, things will get no easier in week two.

Heidelberg returns senior All-American wide receiver Demetrius Magee, who had nine receptions for 136 yards and a touchdown last week. They also bring back fifth-year senior tailback Cameron Vocke, who scored four touchdowns last week and amassed over 200 yards of total offense, as well as senior quarterback Tyler Stoyle, who threw for over 300 yards.

The Berg offense is experienced across the board and poised to put up big numbers in 2017, as they scored over 36 points per game last year.

Paul said it will be vital for ONU's young secondary to improve its open-field tackling and communication, skills that his defense worked on during the extra preparation time between games.

“We have more depth in the secondary than we had last year, but we’re younger. We’re pretty quick and athletic, but we’re still younger,” Paul said. “So we need to communicate better and be more assertive.”

On offense, Ohio Northern will look to keep things rolling behind Williams, who was the OAC’s leading rusher last season and kicked off 2017 with an 182-yard performance at Adrian.

Freed also completed 21 of his 36 passes in week one for 295 yards and a touchdown, as he is coming off a sophomore season in which he finished second in the conference in passing yards.

These two high-octane offenses will go head-to-head at Dial-Roberson Stadium on Saturday in each teams’ OAC opener. Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m.

Here are some more notes heading into Saturday’s game:

 

Heidelberg boasts recent success

The Student Princes have won five of the last six meetings between these two teams, including last year’s 45-14 rout in Tiffin. Four different Heidelberg receivers scored in that game, as the Student Princes led 22-0 at halftime.

The Heidelberg defense kept Christiaan Williams out of the endzone last year, making them one of just three teams to do so.

 

Who is Mark Niles?

One of the bright spots for the Ohio Northern defense in week one was sophomore linebacker Mark Niles, who led the team in tackles with 12. He also returned an interception to the house in the first quarter and recorded a sack against Adrian.

The crazy part? He played JV the entire season last year, making the Adrian game his collegiate varsity debut.

Niles started the game because senior linebackers Zach Merenoff and Landry Hostetler were both injured (Hostetler was at 75 percent by gametime, Paul said, but not healthy enough to rely on for the whole game).

“He was a young man who had a really good preseason, and had a really good spring, too,” Paul said of Niles. “We knew we needed Mark to step up, and he did. His effort was outstanding.”

With Merenoff and Hostetler healthy for Saturday’s game, Paul said that Niles will split time with the two at the linebacker position, alongside preseason All-American Zach Schmerge.

 

Hurricane Irma’s effect on Floridian, Georgian ONU players

10 players on Ohio Northern’s roster are from Florida or Georgia. According to Paul, however, nobody on the team had to go home to help their families cope with Hurricane Irma, which was a Category 3 hurricane by the time it hit Florida early this week.

“We were in constant communication with the guys on who might have family that can’t get out,” Paul said. “It seems like everybody’s OK, at least the immediate family.”