GVSU ready for national spotlight in opener
Lakers kick off season Thursday night at Azusa Pacific
GVL / Archive Heath Parling
This season opener has Hollywood written all over it.
The nationally-televised showdown features a stadium located about 25 miles east of Los Angeles, a star-studded cast of All-American candidates and a pair of top-25 teams in the AFCA Division II Preseason Coaches’ Poll.
For the No. 2 Grand Valley State University football team, the key is avoiding all of the hype, hoopla and ballyhoo.
“There’s a lot of challenges: the distance, handling the emotion of an opener that’s on national television and being preseason ranked number two,” said GVSU coach Matt Mitchell. “We’ve got to manage all of those expectations.”
The expectations are high for the Lakers after their 12-3 season in 2013, but their first game will be no walk on the boulevard against No. 22 Azusa Pacific University.
APU, the NCAA’s newest active Division II program, dropped a 38-17 contest in Allendale to begin its season a year ago, but bounced back by winning 10 of its next 11 games and a Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC) title.
The team brings back 46 letter winners and 10 returning starters.
One of those returning starters is 6-foot-2, 240-pound senior tailback Terrell Watson, Lindy's 2014 Preseason Division II Offensive Player of the Year, who rushed for 1,812 yards and 23 touchdowns last season.
“He’s a very big back, he’s got light feet and good vision,” Mitchell said. “He’s pretty scary when his shoulder pads are parallel to the line of scrimmage – he’s a downhill type runner.
“He never misses a cut or never misses a hole so we can’t let him get in the second level of our defense; we don’t match up well physically against him. We’ve got to do a good job with our front seven guys of getting the run stopped.”
Stopping the run will be an important aspect of the tilt for both teams.
GVSU’s offense features three standout running backs – seniors Michael Ratay, Chris Robinson and junior Kirk Spencer – and all three bring a different dimension to the Laker ground game.
“One of our hallmarks is to establish the run,” Robinson said. “We’ve always got to be able to do that no matter what the situation is or where we are.”
The Lakers should be able to move the ball against a Cougar defense that returns just three starters, two defensive linemen and the GNAC Defensive Player of the Year, senior free safety Tyler Thornton.
GVSU senior quarterback Heath Parling has the weapons to attack APU's secondary from a number of angles, but he certainly figures to involve recently-converted junior Jamie Potts early and often. On Tuesday, Mitchell said Potts is “100 percent a wide receiver and no longer a tight end.”
APU’s passing attack appears to be somewhat of an enigma, as senior quarterback Nick Owens missed all but two games a year ago. The Lakers have limited tape on the left-hander and are expecting the unexpected.
“We’ve heard he’s a strong runner," said GVSU junior linebacker Brad Horling. "So we’re ready for that – playing zone read, having our D-ends squared away and our backers on the pitch game."
Mitchell said the Lakers may need to adjust on the fly, and he expects to see different looks from APU's spread offense. He also said playing well on special teams and creating turnovers could help quiet the crowd early in the game.
The game is scheduled to kick off at 9 p.m. ET. You can watch it on CBS College Sports, attend the viewing party hosted by GVSU Athletics at Celebration! Cinema North in Grand Rapids, tune in at ESPN 96.1 on your radio dial or follow @GVLSports on Twitter for live updates of the action.