Lakers to host rival Cardinals in annual Battle of the Valleys

By Brady McAtamney | 9/27/17 10:07pm

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GVL / Matt Read The Lakers take on Northwood University on Saturday 23rd, 2017.

Fireworks on the Fourth of July. Lions football on Thanksgiving. Battle of the Valleys on the gridiron. 

Some traditions are timeless, and the No. 9 Grand Valley State Lakers (3-1, 3-0 GLIAC) and Saginaw Valley State Cardinals (2-2, 0-2 GLIAC) are preparing to partake in one of the biggest traditions each school has to offer Saturday, Sept. 30.

Including a week-long string of events leading up to the football showdown, BOTV is an annual favorite of Lakers and Cardinals alike.

“It’s a rivalry game, a big one, and I’m blessed to be able to be a part of this,” said defensive lineman and recent transfer Demetrious Farmer ahead of his first BOTV week. “They’re going to come hard and bring everything they’ve got.”

The Lakers will head into the bout rolling, having won three straight games by a combined score of 139-7 over a trio of conference foes. With the victories, they have established themselves as the only GLIAC school to start conference play 3-0 and one of three to start undefeated (Ashland University and Tiffin University, 2-0).

SVSU has not been as fortunate. They will come to Allendale after two straight losses to conference foes Wayne State and Michigan Tech by a combined 14 points.

However, come Saturday, everyone can throw 2017 team records and point differentials out the window, as GVSU head coach Matt Mitchell believes the rivalry game always lifts teams to a higher level, making the bout more contested than one might expect.

“When you look at (SVSU quarterback) Ryan Conklin, he’s tough," Mitchell said. "He sits in there and take some shots when he delivers the ball. They have a good running back crew. Tommy Scott hurt us last year, (and) he’s off to a good start. This might be the best collection of talent in the offensive backfield when you look at quarterback and running back that we’ve faced. It’s a new challenge for our defense; this is more of a traditional offense. They can throw the ball down the field. 

"The first three opponents that we’ve seen have been more option under center. (We) haven’t really seen much of a shotgun offense attack.” 

The Cardinals pass attack figures to be the best the Lakers will have seen so far. Out of all 10 teams in the GLIAC, they have thrown for the third most yards (980), only behind Ashland (1,152) and GVSU (1,033). Meanwhile, the Lakers' previous conference opponents—Davenport University, Michigan Tech and Northwood University—make up three of the bottom four teams in that category.

SVSU's offensive attack is hardly one-dimensional, though. Despite ranking seventh in the conference with 726 rushing yards, they sit only 78 yards behind the third-place Lakers, who have picked up 804 yards on the ground.

“There’s a lot of moving parts to their offense,” Mitchell said. “They run some zone schemes, some down schemes, try to get their tailbacks (involved) and sprinkle in some quarterback runs to keep you honest. But they can throw the ball downfield, and that’s something we haven’t necessarily seen a lot of these first four weeks—a legitimate five-step attack with the ball—and there’s reads and guys down the field that you’ve got to cover.

“To me, it’ll be one of the biggest challenges getting pressure on the quarterback, and also doing a good job in the back end of our defense, because we haven’t been super stressed in the back end of our defense the last few games.”

Despite hotly contested games in recent years, including a triple-overtime victory for the Lakers in Saginaw in 2016, GVSU has owned the series. The Cardinals have not beaten the Lakers since 2012 and have only won three meetings since 2004. Only one of those victories occurred in Allendale, the site of this season’s game.

That said, one of GVSU’s stars, quarterback Bart Williams, has admittedly struggled in games against their rival. In his two games against the Cardinals, he has gone 28-47 with 613 passing yards, seven touchdowns and seven interceptions.

“The last two years, they’ve brought it," Williams said. "They’ve given us tough competition. Even that 2015 season, their record from what I remember wasn’t great going into that last game of the season, and we were rolling, and that game wasn’t an easy game. I haven’t played well against Saginaw in the last two years to be completely honest.

“They’re fired up and going to come with a lot of intensity. It’s going to come down to who wants it more. This is definitely one of those weeks you have to take seriously. Game plan, coming out to practice, we can’t afford to have one bad day of practice. It’s a big week, and they’re going to come fired up.”

GVSU’s defense has allowed by far the fewest pass yards per game, not only in the GLIAC, but also in the entire NCAA with only 58.3 pass yards allowed per game. Additionally, the Lakers have allowed the fifth-fewest total yards per game in the nation with 243.1, also a GLIAC best. While a result of both defensive talent and the caliber of previous opponents, the number certainly allows the Lakers to carry confidence into the game.

To add intrigue to the already-anticipated matchup, each team is tearing a page out of the NFL’s “Color Rush” book, as the Cardinals will wear all red uniforms and the Lakers will sport a blacked-out look.

The BOTV game between GVSU and SVSU is scheduled to kick off at 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 30, in Lubbers Stadium. The game can be streamed online at ESPN3.com or heard on ESPN radio 96.1.

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