HOUGHTON - With five weeks to go in the regular season, the Michigan Tech football team is in a five-way tie for first place in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference North Division.
The Huskies (4-1, 4-1 GLIAC) obviously don't need to be informed how critical each game is, but this Saturday's Homecoming match-up against Northwood (4-2, 3-2 GLIAC) presents a unique challenge.
The Timberwolves invade Houghton with their "Woodbone" offense, partially based off the well-known "Wishbone" offense, but mixing in elements of more conventional sets as well.
"It's an option offense and the thing with option offense is you have to play assignment football," Tech coach Tom Kearly said. "You have to make sure on all your defensive calls someone is accountable for the dive, someone has the quarterback, someone has the pitch."
They then use that option running game to open up their play-action pass game. Kearly admits that, even though NU is using less of the option than they have in "quite some time," it's a hard offense to prepare for.
"It's hard to practice it because you don't get the speed you want, and it takes a long time to get it executed, so it's hard to get a scout team to execute it," Kearly said.
Tech's defense will need to play like it did in the first half of last week's win at Northern Michigan, and the second half against Grand Valley State, putting together a 60-minute effort against senior quarterback Aaron Shavers and junior tailback Cameron Jackson.
Tech's offense will certainly face a stiff challenge against Northwood's defense, which starts nine seniors and ranks second in the GLIAC in total defense by surrendering 299 yards per game.
The key recently for Tech's offensive unit has been the connection between quarterback Tyler Scarlett and wide receiver Matt Curtin. In his last two games, Curtin has an impressive 16 catches for 361 yards and seven touchdowns.
"Part of it, we got behind and we had to throw the football, which helped get him some stuff two weeks ago. Last week, Tyler has a real comfort zone with him right now as far as throwing it to him. He's exploited some stuff there. But we know he can't be our only guy," Kearly said.
Curtin has 27 catches this year, but Bryan LaChapelle (24) and Alex Elsenheimer (21) aren't far behind.
"I think Tyler has done a real good job of distributing the football to where it should be," Kearly added.
In terms of whether Scarlett may be zoning in too much on Curtin, Kearly put it in perspective: "If the ball is in the end zone we're not going to complain a lot."
The Huskies, of course, will always look to establish their rushing game, too, a situation just about as up in the air as it was in the preseason.
Running back Charlie Leffingwell is doubtful with an injury, but Cedrick Barber, Akeem Cason and Josh Hauswirth are all rotating in as the lead back. All four backs and Scarlett have at least 22 carries and more than 100 yards rushing on the season.
Northwood will come to Houghton particularly motivated to get a win after starting the year 4-0 but dropping its last two games to two top-20 teams. The Timberwolves own a 21-17 overall record against the Huskies, but Tech has won four of the last five meetings, including a 24-10 win in Midland last year.
Kickoff for the Homecoming and Hall of Fame weekend game is slated for 1 p.m. Saturday at Sherman Field.