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The Northern Athletics Conference season is only two games old, but this young Lakeland College football team is growing up fast.
After suffering through a rugged three-game non-conference schedule that left the Muskies winless, Lakeland won its second straight Saturday, a 14-9 win over Wisconsin Lutheran during Homecoming weekend.
The most significant thing Saturday was the way Lakeland (2-3, 2-0 NAC) won this game.
WLC (2-3, 1-1 NAC) came in with a swagger, having knocked off previously-unbeaten Concordia University Chicago in their league opener a week earlier. Lutheran was the league's No. 2 scoring (25.5 points per game) and No. 2 offensive team (305.5 total yards per game), but Lakeland limited them to one fourth-quarter touchdown and 184 total yards.
Lakeland's two touchdowns both came via the run, making this the first game since Oct. 30, 2004, that the Muskies won without a passing touchdown.
"We really want to try and even out our offense so we're a double threat," said Lakeland junior quarterback Jake Dworak, who finished 17 of 27 with 227 yards and a 1-yard TD run. "If we can find a way to run on a defense, we're going to run - the pass is always going to be there. It shows that we're more than just a passing team. We've got an offensive line that can get that push for us."
Sophomore running back Jeremy Williams led Lakeland with 99 yards on 23 carries and a 2-yard TD run with 2:24 left in the first half that opened the game's scoring.
"We really focused on ball control offense, especially in the second half, and just continuing to get first downs," said Lakeland head coach Kevin Doherty. "It takes a lot of pressure off our passing game when we can run the ball. It makes play calling easier. When you're in a second- or third-down situation with short yardage to go, you have more plays you can call.
"I was still happy with our passing game because we made some big catches that sustained drives."
Lakeland's defense delivered some key stops. Protecting a 7-0 lead midway through the third quarter, Lutheran had a first-and-goal at the Lakeland 2 yard line. After two straight rushes for loss, Lakeland senior defensive lineman Josh Gordon sacked WLC quarterback Zach Shaw for a 13-yard loss, and the Crusaders settled for a field goal.
"That goal line stand was huge," Doherty said. "Every game that defense is together they're getting better and it's doing a world of good for their confidence. The big question mark coming into the season was how was this young defense going to respond with last year's leaders being gone? They're stepping up collectively and really playing together. They don't stop fighting."
Lakeland's defense finished with 11.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and four passes broken up.
"This week we came out playing with more emotion," said junior linebacker Will Baldwin, one of a number of first-year defensive starters. Baldwin finished with eight tackles, including two for loss. "Over time we're getting our assignments down, getting more repetitions and watching a lot of film and the result is everybody is starting to come together as a team.
"This is a game that gives us a lot of confidence, because this was supposed to be one of the top teams in our conference. It's a good feeling."
The win leaves Lakeland tied with rival Concordia, Wis., atop the NAC standings in the early going. But it's a win that has the Muskies confident they're headed in the right direction.
"This tells us we can prevail in a close game," Dworak said. "We were able to hold them off and keep driving and handle pressure situations. There are still some things we need to work on, but hopefully, as we get toward the end of the season, things are clicking on all cylinders."
Doherty said Saturday gives the Muskies a quality win a week after a 40-0 shutout over a struggling Rockford team.
"Obviously we're not where we need to be," Doherty said. "Lutheran is much improved over last year, and I thought they were pretty good last year. I thought we controlled the ball well and we played with a lot of confidence.
"When we came off the field and didn't run something the way we wanted, our guys were saying 'Stay in that formation coach, we're going to do it.' When you're not playing with confidence, guys come off the field with that blank stare and don't know what to suggest."
Tight end Eric Zuelsdorf, a junior playing his first year for Lakeland, had a breakout game, catching four first-half passes for 100 yards.
The Muskies return to action Saturday, Oct. 17, with a 1 p.m. game against Concordia University Chicago.