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ONU, Adrian have hostile history to settle

Ohio Northern and Adrian have not played each other in an official game since 1989, although they have scrimmaged each other for the past 14 years. (photo/ ONU Sports Information)

There are a lot of uncertainties in season openers, especially when the two teams playing have not faced each other in an official game since 1989.

What will this team throw at us? How will they defend us as opposed to other teams? How different will they look in person versus on film?

There is one question that won’t have to be answered on Saturday night, however, in Ohio Northern’s season opener against Adrian (Mich.). When it comes to the tone of Saturday's contest, one thing will be certain.

“It’s going to be a physical game,” starting left tackle Sam Shook said with a smirk. “I can promise you that.”

Ohio Northern and Adrian have scrimmaged each other every year since Dean Paul has been the head coach at ONU (which has been the past 14 years), although this will be the first official game between the two schools in 28 years. Paul said that the scrimmages were often physical and intense, with one having to be called because of an altercation.

“The alumni, they would tell you that it was always a heated, physical scrimmage,” Paul said. “We had to call a scrimmage one time because guys were fighting about hitting the quarterback. The JV game last year got a little heated. So there’s been some intense battles for sure.”

Junior wide receiver Brenden Hadley called the scrimmages between the two schools “nasty,” claiming that players would twist their opponents’ ankles on the ground after tackles.

Shook thought that the tension between the two schools was somewhat inevitable.

“When you scrimmage somebody for years and years and you don’t like each other, bad blood will develop,” Shook said. “But I don’t think anything’s ever gotten out of hand.”

Given the recent scrimmage skirmishes -- which senior cornerback Christian Randolph said usually started with trash talking and ended with fighting -- the Polar Bears are excited to play Adrian in an actual game this season, where the hits are authorized and the final score counts.

“We don’t like them, they don’t like us,” Hadley said. “So it’s going to be really exciting to go against them again, and for it to actually count. And we can actually go full-speed and go at them.”

ONU and Adrian will take out years of pent-up animosity under the lights on Saturday, with kickoff slated for 6 p.m. at Adrian’s Docking Stadium. For the Polar Bears, however, Saturday is much more than just a newfound rivalry game.

Saturday represents the start of a season in which Northern aims to make less mental mistakes late in games, which led to the team’s 5-5 finish last fall.

Notes from media day: ONU picked third, fourth

Three of ONU’s five losses last year came in the fourth quarter, a trend that kept Northern out of the conference title race. They blew a 23-10 fourth quarter lead at Utica in week one; then a 16-13 fourth quarter lead at home against eventual OAC champion John Carroll in week six; then a 21-17 fourth quarter lead at Baldwin Wallace in week 10.

“I feel like we were very close last year -- just little mental mistakes in the fourth quarter kept us out of having a really good season,” Hadley said. “And I don’t think most people realize that, outsiders looking in.”

Randolph said that those late-game losses -- often prompted by penalties and turnovers -- have motivated the team since the previous fall.

“That was pretty much the biggest thing in the offseason, just getting back to that mentality of winning games in the fourth instead of losing them,” Randolph said. “Three of them last year, that’s how they went down. So that was one of the main focuses this offseason -- probably the biggest one -- was getting that mental toughness back in the fourth quarter.”

Ohio Northern will bring back several key pieces from last year’s roster in 2017. Quarterback Will Freed, who was second in the OAC in passing yards last season, will return for his junior season. Sophomore tailback Christiaan Williams will also return after leading the conference in rushing yards per game as a freshman.

Hadley, Chad Rex and Malachi Nolletti -- who all played meaningful snaps last season -- will fill out the receiving corps. Meanwhile, all five members of the offensive line have started at least 10 college games.

From July: Click here for an (early) 2017 OAC football season preview

On defense, certain positions will lend themselves to inexperience.

Aside from second-team all-OAC defensive end Jason Hundley, the Polar Bears will start three defensive linemen on Saturday with one combined career start between them. Two juniors -- tackle Justin Croswell and defensive end Kyle Rowe -- will take the field, as well as freshman nose tackle Carlos Bunton.

Preseason all-American Zach Schmerge and fellow senior Zach Merenoff will start at the linebacker positions for Northern, while the secondary positions will be headed by the experienced Randolph, senior Cyler Caldwell and others.

READ: Schmerge named preseason second-team All-American by d3football.com

Ohio Northern was picked to finish third in the OAC by the media at this year’s media day, while conference coaches picked the Polar Bears to finish fourth.

“I think we’ll surprise some people,” Hadley said.

 

Game notes:

Adrian went 4-6 last season, placing fifth in the MIAA. They were predicted to finish third in the conference in the 2017 coaches preseason poll.

The Bulldogs will return an experienced bunch as well, with nine offensive starters and eight defensive starters back this season. That group includes all-region defensive end Damon Fuller, a senior who tied for first in the conference in sacks last season with just over one per game.

Fuller will be lining up over ONU right tackle Carter Kemper on Saturday. While Kemper did not play the first two games last year due to an injury, he started the last eight.

Although Fuller is surely a pass-rushing threat, Shook believes that Kemper can expose some of Fuller’s weaknesses based on what he’s seen on film.

“He’s obviously fast, he’s explosive; a good pass-rusher. But, and I hate to throw shots -- and I’m not typically the one to do so -- but just watching film, one thing I’ve noticed is that there’s times where he’ll take plays off,” Shook said. “I think Carter’s got a great opportunity. On a few of our run plays I think Carter can really get underneath him and drive him out of there.”

Dean Paul said that the Bulldogs run a pro-style offense, although it is hard to tell how they will line up on Saturday because of nuances to their roster.