GVSU football welcomes Tiffin for last regular-season game
With their playoff prospects looking grim, the Lakers prepare to host the Dragons at home
We’re a long way from August, Lakers.
That’s when the Grand Valley State football team played its first game of the 2017 season Thursday, Aug. 31, in Indianapolis. As the second-ranked team in the country, the Lakers lost by four points to an unranked University of Indianapolis team.
It’s November now. The Lakers have just dropped out of the national rankings for the first time all year after losing to Ferris State by one point and suffering a buzzer-beating field-goal loss at Ashland University. Now, Indianapolis is currently ranked No. 6, while Ashland and Ferris are not far behind at 10 and 11, respectively.
Since 2014, the Lakers have not missed the NCAA playoffs, but they face the danger of re-writing that statistic this week.
“There’s a path (to the playoffs), but I don’t really want to talk about the path," said GVSU head coach Matt Mitchell. "We’ve had our chances. There’s a path, but for me to sit here—I didn’t even talk about it much yesterday in the team meeting. We’ll worry about the process and what we have to do.
"If I keep sitting here and dangling these things in front of people and we focus on that, then we lose track of things that matter, not only for 2017 but for the future of this program.”
However, the regional rankings give GVSU some hope, albeit only a glimmer. They currently sit ninth in a list where only the top seven teams advance, with UIndy, Ashland and Ferris all comfortably ranked from two to four, respectively. The two teams directly in front of the Lakers, Arkansas Tech University and Harding University, will play each other Saturday, Nov. 11, which guarantees that one of those teams will lose. If one more team drops, the Lakers could be in business for playoff contention.
Of course, none of that matters if GVSU does not take care of business when the Tiffin University Dragons (6-4, 5-3 GLIAC) file into Lubbers Stadium Saturday, Nov. 11, to help the Lakers celebrate Veterans Day and Senior Day.
In 2017, the GLIAC has indisputably been run by GVSU, Ashland and Ferris. After those three, Tiffin comes as the next squad up. They rank fourth in the conference in record, points scored and points allowed. They have done it despite the loss of star quarterback Antonio Pipkin to graduation—a hole that redshirt freshman quarterback Nick Watson has plugged admirably in his debut season with the Dragons.
So far, Watson has completed 178 of 294 attempts for 2,124 passing yards, 12 touchdowns and six interceptions. His top two targets—Tony Shead Jr. and Tyler Denton—have caught a combined 62 passes for 864 yards and eight touchdown receptions.
Besides passing, the Dragons also possess a threatening ground game. Running back JaQuan Hardy has accumulated 923 yards rushing and seven touchdowns on 180 attempts this season.
On defense, Tiffin has allowed fewer than 20 points per game to opposing offenses this season.
Overall, the Lakers have a tall task ahead not only to keep themselves in playoff contention but to potentially send their seniors off on a high note.
“It’s Senior Day, so that’s going to be very important for us to recognize a lot of these seniors that have done a lot for this program over their careers and especially over the last few years, those conference championships and playoff runs that these guys have had,” Mitchell said. “We’ve competed, we’ve shown a lot of heart, we’ve shown a lot of toughness, but we’ve made some critical errors. … We’ll get back at it this week."
Nobody in Allendale wants Saturday to be the last game of the Lakers’ season, but for the seniors, the drive goes deeper than football.
Brandon Bean. Collin Schlosser. Garrett Pougnet. Urston Smith. Cody Moore. Nick Keizer. Demetrius Farmer. Kyle Short. Keane Belcher. Dan DeLuca. And an abundance more.
These players have all poured countless hours into the GVSU football program whether they've been here for the past five years, like Bean, or this season only, like Farmer. These men—Lakers for a lifetime—have forged bonds that go deeper than the beads on the turf in Lubbers Stadium.
“This senior class is actually all the guys I came in with,” said quarterback Bart Williams. “I had a medical redshirt, so a lot of these guys that are graduating have been my friends the past five years. They’ve been the guys I’ve roomed with, guys that I’ve been around the football program with, guys that I’ve grown with and seen the development of. This senior class means a lot to me.
"Hopefully, if things shake out, we can keep it going. I don’t know; it’s just tough to see these guys go. I love sharing the field with them.”
Sure, the Lakers will be playing for their season on Saturday, but they will also be playing for each other as many of them will potentially be playing collegiate football for the last time.
Saturday’s deeper meaning does not end there. Coincidentally, Veterans Day falls on the same day as the game against Tiffin. With that, GVSU will be wearing special Navy-inspired "dress whites” uniforms to honor the U.S.' armed forces.
“We play for each other on Saturdays and we play for the fans at Grand Valley, but it’s also a great opportunity for us to play for the veterans and honor them and all they do for our country,” Pougnet said. “I’ve had a great uncle who served for our country, and it’d be awesome to take some time and honor them. I’m looking forward to it.”
In the grand scheme of things, every single game is important. Back in September, as the Lakers prepared for their bout with Northwood University (a game they would end up winning 49-0), Keizer brought up the prospect that each game is more important than the last for them.
“We have a lot of guys who just aren’t content no matter the outcome, whether we win or lose,” Keizer said. “We want to get better the next week, attack the next game like it’s the most important game of the season. I think for the most part, it’s just the guys we have in the room.”
By that logic, the final game of the season is more important than every one that has come before it. For the 2017 Lakers, with everything that is on the line come Saturday, Keizer’s assessment from over a month ago could not be more spot on.
The do-or-die duel between GVSU and Tiffin is slated to kick off from Lubbers Stadium in Allendale at 1 p.m. following the delivery of the game ball via skydiver. The season finale can be streamed live on ESPN3.com or heard on ESPN radio 96.1.