A football player runs for a touchdown
Ashland University tailback Larry Martin looks for an opening in the Ferris State defense at Ashland's Jack Miller Stadium.

ASHLAND — Trevor Bycznski and his Ashland teammates aren’t ready to wave the white flag just yet.

The Eagles still have plenty to play for.

AU is searching for its first win of the season after a pair of near-misses against nationally-ranked opponents. Ashland squandered fourth-quarter leads in losses to IUP and top-ranked Ferris State to open the campaign. 

As disheartening as they were, those setbacks haven’t done anything to deflate the Eagles.

“Those are two non-conference games,” Bycznski, who is in his first season as Ashland’s starting quarterback, said after last week’s loss to two-time defending national champ Ferris State. “At the end of the day, we want to win the conference. We feel like once we get all the pieces put together we can do that.

“That was the No. 1 team in the country. We had them in the first half. We’ve just got to finish games.”

AU begins defense of its Great Midwest Athletic Conference title at 7 p.m. Saturday against Hillsdale (Mich.) College at Jack Miller Stadium. Like Ashland, Hillsdale brings an 0-2 record into Saturday’s GMAC opener. 

“Here’s what I told the guys, ‘You can take heart in the fact that you went toe-to-toe with two of the top 10 teams in the country,’ ” first-year Ashland head coach Doug Geiser said last week. “We got a chance to shoot our shot against two of the best teams in the country. We’re 0-2 (but) our goals are still there.

“The next quarter (of the season) we have three of our toughest opponents in the league, starting with the rivalry game against Hillsdale coming up this week.” 

Hillsdale boast one of the GMAC’s top rushing attacks, led by running back Michael Herzog. The shifty 5-foot-9, 200-pound senior has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the Chargers’ two losses and ranks second in the GMAC with 254 yards on 47 carries.

Quarterback Garrit Aissen has completed 39-of-64 passes for 328 yards and a touchdown, while Sam Lee has a team-best 11 receptions for 120 yards and a score. Jon Metzger, an Ashland High School product, caught three passes for 23 yards in Hillsdale’s loss to Michigan Tech.

Ty Williams, a Hillsdale High School grad, is the Chargers’ starting H-back and had two catches for 18 yards last week.

Bycznski’s first two career starts have been solid. He has completed 30-of-58 passes for 352 yards and two touchdowns.

Dezmin Lyburtus, who transferred to AU from Ferris State, has 10 receptions for 139 yards and caught two TD passes against his former team last week.

“This football team is mentally strong and that is a credit to coach Geiser,” Lyburtus said afterward. “Even after a loss like this … we’re going to come in with our heads up knowing we played a really good game.”

The winner of Saturday’s game will take possession of the Traveling Trophy, which was introduced with the teams’ first meeting in 1970.

Hillsdale owns a 26-20 advantage in the all-time series and currently has custody of the Traveling Trophy after last year’s 36-20 upset victory at Hillsdale — AU’s only regular season loss last year.

“We’re going to see their best,” Geiser said. “(Last year’s loss) really comes down to one thing. They respected the rivalry. Our guys did not. They wanted to get the trophy back more than we did.

“We will respect the rivalry and respect that football team. It’s going to be one of the most heated contests in Division II across the country this next week.”