HOUGHTON - The No. 22 ranked Michigan Tech football team is putting together an impressive season so far with a 5-1 record, but after missing the playoffs with an 8-2 record two years ago, the Huskies know full well the importance of each game going forward.
No game is mathematically a must-win with still four games to go and three 5-1 teams in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference North Division, but Saturday's game at Ferris State (4-3, 3-3 GLIAC) will certainly have playoff ramifications.
"There's only three teams in our league right now with less than two losses, and we're one of those three," Tech coach Tom Kearly said. "As long as you can keep that string intact you're playing in a big ballgame. That's what we'd like to do is play in a big game every week."
While the Bulldogs have a .500 record in the GLIAC, they've beaten Grand Valley 40-24, and lost to the other two 5-1 teams by a combined 17 points, including a 31-24 overtime loss at Saginaw Valley.
Statistically it'll obviously be a challenge for the Huskies, ranked 22nd by the American Football Coaches Association, to earn their 10th straight win over the Bulldogs.
One statistic that instantly jumps off the page as it relates to Tech and Ferris State is rushing. The Huskies have the GLIAC's best rushing defense (98.8 yards against per game) while the Bulldogs have the GLIAC's best rushing offense (315.7 yards per game).
And FSU's leading rusher isn't even a running back.
Quarterback Jason Vander Laan, a 6-foot-4, 222-pound redshirt freshman, averages 117.4 yards per game and 5.7 yards per carry, with 10 rushing touchdowns in seven games.
"He's tough. He doesn't care where he gets to, outside, inside, he's going to lower his shoulder and try to get that extra yard," said Tech senior linebacker Justin Armstrong, who led the Huskies with 10 tackles in last week's 28-21 win over Northwood.
FSU presents a unique challenge in the sense that they're so heavily run-based, but with a quarterback leading those efforts, that running game opens up the pass just enough to keep defenses honest, even though they would be considered by many to be one-dimensional threat.
"I think they have a very diverse scheme. There's a lot of option involved, but there's a lot of other things," Kearly said. "You have to really play assignment football."
He said the key will be players being able to get off blocks and make tackles in space.
"The people that have done that against them defensively have kind of held them in check or at least contained them," he said.
Ferris is in the middle of the pack defensively, so Tech feels like it can establish the run and open up opportunities for big plays downfield, which the Huskies have done successfully.
Tech senior wide receiver Matt Curtin is currently second in the GLIAC with 100.3 yards per game receiving, averaging 18.2 yards per catch, opening up other options underneath, like tight end Bryan LaChapelle, who scored a 60-yard touchdown on a short crossing route last week.
"Curtin is coming up as a go-to guy for us and makes big plays, and that's what our offense needs," LaChapelle said. "We kind of feed off each other."
Tech's rushing attack will be back to full force with Charlie Leffingwell back in the mix after missing time with an injury. He practiced Wednesday and Thursday and left with the team for Big Rapids, Mich., this morning at 9:30 a.m. It is only the Huskies' second trip outside the Upper Peninsula this season.
Saturday's kickoff between the Huskies and Bulldogs is slated for 1 p.m.