Michigan Tech football aims to compete with the best

HOUGHTON – This Michigan Tech football season comes down to one question: Can they take the next step?

They’ll be good this year. That can almost be taken for granted – barring a rash of injuries at key positions. The Huskies have built a reputation as a consistent, winning program, going 44-18 in the last six years – a winning record in each season – and winning a GLIAC North title in 2012 while earning a playoff appearance in 2014. And with eight starters back on offense, in addition to half the defensive starters returning from a 7-3 team, there’s no reason to think Michigan Tech won’t continue its recent winning ways.

But just “how” good can they be?

Last year, the Huskies were just below the top-tier GLIAC teams – Grand Valley State, Ferris State and Ashland – losing to each of the schools that would represent the conference in the playoffs. Ferris State (ranked second in the GLIAC North Preseason Coaches Poll) and Ashland (first in the GLIAC South) are the only two opponents where Michigan Tech (third in the GLIAC North) won’t be the favorite. And the Huskies have the luxury of hosting No. 12 Ferris State and No. 6 Ashland at Sherman Field.

“I think we have to (take the next step) in order to be considered great in this league,” Michigan Tech quarterback Brandon Cowie said. “We do have to win those big ballgames. But every week in the GLIAC – as all teams know – if you don’t come to play, you’re going to get beat.”

Ferris State opened its season with a 41-0 beatdown on Ohio Dominican University. In a week, they’ll be at Sherman Field to give the Huskies its first opportunity to stake its claim to the top of the GLIAC North.

But before they can get there, they can’t afford to trip up against Walsh University today at 1 p.m. at Sherman Field.

“They’re physical, they’re a sound football team,” Michigan Tech head coach Tom Kearly said of Walsh. “We know that early in the year last year, they played everyone as good as you can play; they took Ashland to overtime (31-24). There’s no question that they will be a very formidable opponent.”

The Walsh Cavaliers don’t feature the amount of returning starters like the Huskies, but they’re not without key returnees. Walsh features players with extensive experience at all its offensive skill positions.

Redshirt freshman Reid Worstell returns at quarterback. He saw action in seven games and completed 98 of 164 passes for 1,157 yards and eight touchdowns to four interceptions.

“He’s a pocket passer, big, tall kid,” Kearly said. “He looks like he has a real strong arm on film, and he has a lot of weapons to throw the ball to.”

Worstell will spread the field with passes from sideline to sideline, in addition to the screen game. His two primary targets are senior Matt Matuska and Jeremy Wilson. Each player caught 35 passes last year, with Matuska accumulating 462 yards receiving and 459 for Wilson.

“(Walsh) does a nice job with their edge throws, getting the ball out in space,” Kearly said. “They got enough stuff that you have to stop a lot of different plays.”

Senior running back Aeron Male will start at running back. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry last season, gaining 886 yards on 155 carries. Male and Worstell will work behind an offensive line that’s starting redshirt freshmen at each guard position.

In addition to dealing with Walsh’s offensive weapons, the season-opener presents Tech with a challenge that’s always on Kearly’s mind: tackling.

“That’s the hardest drill, these days, to run and get your football team ready,” Kearly said. “If you tackle (in practice), there’s that chance that someone is going to get dragged down to the ground and there’s going to be an injury, so you’re very careful and pick your moments where you can tackle. It’s an acquired skill.”

Walsh features one of the better tackles in the GLIAC in senior linebacker Nick King. King was an All-GLIAC Second Team selection last season, as he finished with 100 tackles in 10 games. His average of 10 tackles per game was second-highest in the GLIAC.

There are two ways Tech’s opener could go: a springboard for a memorable season, or a mishap that will bury the Huskies into a difficult hole to climb out of.

“You don’t know until your first ballgame if you’re as sharp as you want to be,” Kearly said. “Our ability to play a clean ballgame as far as penalties, turnovers and conversion downs.

“All the fruits of your labor and the work you put in from recruiting, weight training, prep, film work and the early camp – you’re only assured 10 games, so you want to cherish each and every one of them.”