Five Things to Watch For: GVSU vs Shepherd

Lakers head into NCAA semifinal match with questions

By Adam Knorr | 12/9/15 9:06pm

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GVL / Kevin Sielaff - Head coach Matt Mitchell decides not to celebrate too early as Grand Valley takes the lead. Grand Valley defeats Ashland with a final score of 45-28 Nov. 22 at Ashland University.

by Kevin Sielaff / Grand Valley Lanthorn

On Saturday at noon, the Grand Valley State football team will head to the hills of West Virginia to take on Super Region 1 champion Shepherd University. Here are five things GVSU fans can watch for during the semifinal tilt.

GVSU musical running backs

The loss of Kirk Spencer really can't be understated for GVSU. Spencer is the team's leading rusher across the board in terms of carries, yards and touchdowns. Spencer was an excellent pass-catcher, and currently ranks second on the team in catches with 42. The senior was also the primary kickoff returner for the Lakers.

By now, it's clear to Laker fans that freshman back Martayveus Carter will take over Spencer's role as the bell cow. By now, it's clear to Laker fans that Carter can run the ball with the best of them. What remains to be seen, however, is how he will fill in for Spencer as both a receiver out of the backfield and a blocker. Carter made a couple nifty catches against CSU - Pueblo last week, but the trust between quarterback Bart Williams and Carter cannot be the same as it was between Williams and Spencer.

A pair of upperclassmen backs will help take pressure off the relatively young Carter. Senior Ben Hutchins, who had eight carries for 25 yards late in last week's game, will be another option out of the backfield. Junior Terrell Dorsey stands at a healthy 5-foot-11-inches, 225 pounds, and has more season carries between himself and Hutchins. Dorsey has 29 rushes for 115 yards in 2015, while Hutchins has totaled 19 carries for 135 yards.

Whether Mitchell gives Carter the vast majority time share or splits the time more evenly among the three back remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: Kirk Spencer is gone, and someone needs to take the load off Bart Williams.

Killer B's at wide receiver

Alliteration twins Brandon Bean and Billy Brown have more in common than just their initials. GVSU's Bean and Shepherd's Brown are both talented receivers with the ability to stretch the field and turn good plays into explosive ones. The similarities between the two in terms of style of play is apparent.

Until his injury on Oct. 17 against Michigan Tech, Bean was GVSU's top receiver, consistently finding seams down the middle and along the boundaries, turning 20-yard darts into 60-yard touchdowns. Bean's ankle injury sidelined him the majority of the season, but he saw some snaps last week against CSU - Pueblo -- a positive sign for GVSU faithful. Expecting Bean to be at 100 percent would be naive, but any sort of production from the sophomore speedster will be crucial for GVSU.

Brown, on the other hand, is season-tested and raring to go. The junior leads Shepherd in all statistical receiving categories and shares Bean's penchant for racking up yards after catch. GVSU's young secondary will have its hands full with the towering Brown.

Healing up

Grand Valley State has not had a single bye week this season. From Sept. 3 to Dec. 12, the Lakers will have played one game every single week. Shepherd, on the other had, has had two byes throughout the marathon season.

Last week against CSU - Pueblo was a horror show for the Lakers in terms of injury. Spencer broke his leg, wide receiver Nick Dodson left with a thigh injury, offensive guard Jim Walsh, who has been dealing with a foot injury in recent weeks, left the game in the second half. Standouts Matt Judon, Matt Williams and Bart Williams all crumpled on the turf in pain at some point in the game.

Spencer won't play again this season, and Dodson is questionable for Saturday, but the rest of the banged-up Lakers should be available to play. GVSU will not be at full health by any means, but the magnitude of the contest will help some Lakers push through their pains.

On the other side of the ball, Shepherd has been without standout linebacker James Gupton for a number of week. Rams head coach Monte Cater said Gupton is nearing a return, but isn't sure if he'll be ready to go on Saturday. Gupton's return would provide an extra surge to Shepherd's already-strong defense.

Quarterback competition

For fans who like passing and big plays, Saturday's contest will be Elysium. Both GVSU quarterback Bart Williams and Shepherd quarterback Jeff Ziemba are budding stars in the Division II football landscape.

Williams, a redshirt sophomore, has adjusted throughout the season during his first year as the staring quarterback for GVSU. Williams has had plenty of opportunities to get to know his receivers, as he has slung the ball downfield a whopping 428 times this season. His 3,872 passing yards rank first all-time in GVSU history, and his 41 touchdown passes are the best in Division II, but he will see an outstanding Shepherd secondary, led by safety Keon Robinson, on Saturday.

According to GVSU head coach Matt Mitchell, Williams' growing comfort in the pocket is highlighted by his command of the offense, as he has begun to choose more plays and take charge at the line. Last week against CSU - Pueblo, Williams hit Matt Williams on a 65-yard touchdown pass to open the game. Bart Williams had a number of plays to choose from on the first play. He picked his play and hoisted a deep ball to Matt Williams. The rout was on.

Ziemba is one of eight finalists for the Harlon Hill Trophy, which is awarded to the top Division II football player of the year. The junior is extremely efficient and rarely surrenders turnovers. Ziemba has completed 62.7 percent of his passes for 29 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Ziemba is happy to spread the ball around to his talented receivers, and can take over a game on his own.

Competition chasm

In the last decade, the only Super Region without a NCAA championship school is Super Region 1, from which Shepherd emerged victorious. In that span, Super Region 3 leads the way with five titles, Super Region 4 owns three and Super Region 2 owns two. GVSU came out of Super Region 4 this season.

Super Region 1 is not widely feared across Division II football, and with good reason. The region has been unable to post nationally sustained success over time, and, while every year is different, the lack of national title in the region displays a gap in talent between Super Region 1 and primarily Super Regions 3 and 4.

In terms of funding and scholarships available to be awarded, GVSU holds an advantage over Shepherd. In terms of tradition, GVSU holds an advantage over anyone in the country. Shepherd has only made the Division II semifinals once in program history, in a 2010 loss to Valdosta State.

GVSU beat a number of top opponents, including Ferris State and defending national championship CSU - Pueblo to reach the semifinals, and are certainly more battle-tested than Shepherd, which romped through a cupcake conference schedule.

Make no mistake. To be in the Final Four is to have a good football team. GVSU will not overlook Shepherd, and with good reason. The Rams are riding a wave of momentum after knocking off a strong Slippery Rock squad and will have home field advantage on Saturday.

But the talent gap beyond the starters may become apparent. If depth becomes an issue due to injuries or game flow, GVSU will hold a gaping edge.

Prediction: GVSU 27, Shepherd 21

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