GVSU heads to Hillsdale with shot at first place on the line
It doesn’t have the same kind of off-the-field hype as some other games on the schedule, but if the Grand Valley State University football team has a true rival on the field — in the sense of being competitive year-in-year-out — that rival may very well be Hillsdale College.
Combined with the fact that the second-place Lakers (6-2, 5-2 GLIAC) are staring down a matchup against the first-place Chargers (6-2, 6-1 GLIAC) this weekend, Saturday’s game could be the biggest of the season for GVSU.
“Some of the things that we believe in within our program — turnovers, special teams, running the ball, stopping the run — have got to show up on Saturday for us to have a chance down there,” said GVSU head coach Matt Mitchell. “It’s going to be a big game, there’s a lot on the line for both squads heading into this thing. I know our players will be up for the task, up for the challenge.”
The team’s have split the last four matchups, most recently with a last-second loss by GVSU last season. But that game is a microcosm of the recent rivalry between the teams, and Mitchell described some, such as 2010’s 44-41 last-second GVSU victory, as pretty epic battles, pointing to coaching and a strong senior class as reasons for the success.
“They’ve certainly done a good job. We’ve had some really tight games over the last three years,” Mitchell said. “I think the reason that Hillsdale’s raised their competitive level has to do with they’ve done a good job in recruiting, but has come in sync with some good recruits at the quarterback and running back position.”
Recent history aside, Saturday’s game is one that pits an improving GVSU defense against a dangerous backfield pair, the players in the middle of that quarterback-running back position, in junior quarterback Anthony Mifsud and senior tailback Joe Glendening, the GLIAC’s leading rusher.
“There’s no doubt having Matt Judon and Ryan Pettis back, our two starting d-ends back, and Sam Power playing side linebacker … that helped our defense (last week),” Mitchell said. “I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet, but our defensive performance was improved. (It’s) not just about one player, one call, about one specific thing — it’s always a combination of factors.”
Those three, along with the rest of the GVSU defense, will be leaned on to slow Glendening and Co. Unfortunately for GVSU, the team will be without junior cornerback Reggie Williams, who is out for the season with a torn ACL. He’s the third Laker, joining quarterback Heath Parling and tailback Chris Robinson, to suffer a season-ending ACL injury.
The Lakers did contain Glendening in last season’s matchup, but so far this year, the senior has rumbled his way to a GLIAC-leading 1,075 yards rushing — including 127 yards per game in games against three ranked opponents.
“Joe Glendening, I don’t even know how many carries he’s had in his career, but he’s been a four-year starter for them. He’s been a very durable, productive back in the GLIAC,” Mitchell said. “With the type of offense they run, there are sometimes where he gets in there behind that line of scrimmage and you lose him a little bit. (Defense) has a hard time finding him and then he kind of wiggles out and goes.”
The Hillsdale offense is one area of focus for the Lakers, but the Chargers also boast one of GLIAC’s top takeaway defense, boasting a plus-10 turnover differential. Sophomore quarterback Isiah Grimes returned last week to throw for 301 yards and four touchdowns, and teammates applauded his performance coming off an injury.
“Throughout the week at practice, he wasn’t taking any reps, so I thought he did a great job taking all the visual reps and also in the meeting room he was always focused all week,” said senior receiver Israel Woolfork, who caught three passes for 65 yards against Northwood. “He managed a great tempo, it was just an excellent job.”
While the offense did fumble three times last week, Grimes return proved to be the spark the team needed. Now, with Grimes back on offense and contributors returning to health on defense, the Lakers can grab at least a share of first place in the GLIAC with a win Saturday.
Even with all of the directions the team’s play has gone in recent weeks, the group is focused and its preparation and goals aren’t changing one bit.
“No, not at all. I think (our focus is) the same as we’ve had all season,” said senior guard Tim Lelito. “I mean, we’ve got two losses right now, so right now for us it’s the playoffs — it’s do-or-die for us right now.”
The teams will kick off at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at “Muddy” Waters Stadium in Hillsdale, Mich. The game can be heard on ESPN 96.1 FM and followed on Twitter