GVSU football’s season on the line in showdown with Ashland

By Brady McAtamney | 11/1/17 9:39pm

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GVL / Emily Frye Brandon Bean celebrates a Laker touchdown during the first quarter on Saturday October 28, 2017.

The Grand Valley State football coaches and players are a humble bunch. Together, they preach the importance of every game being equally as crucial as the next. They genuinely believe that no one game means more than another.

It’s a sound ideology, one that allows the players to gear up each and every week as though each game will be their biggest, even games against teams whose records may not be as good as theirs. 

There’s only one problem: It does not account for when they actually are competing in their most important game of the entire season, as they are this week.

Yes, it’s time for the Lakers to pull themselves up and prepare for their most paramount game of the regular season to date. The No. 19 nationally ranked Lakers will travel to Ashland, Ohio, Saturday, Nov. 4, to take on the No. 11 Ashland University Eagles (8-1, 7-0), who are currently riding a seven-game win streak, in a game with do-or-die playoff implications for GVSU in the GLIAC.

“This is obviously a very critical game for our season," said head coach Matt Mitchell. "With some of the losses that happened in our region, there’s a lot out in front of us. We’re virtually assured getting in (to the playoffs) if we can somehow win out, and also, winning out ties us for the conference championship, so I think all these guys are attuned to what’s at stake for this contest.”

There are four “Super Regions” in Division II college football. The top seven teams in each region qualify for the postseason; the Lakers currently sit at No. 6 in their Super Region Three, while Ashland is ahead at No. 3. As Mitchell noted, a win against Ashland on the road, followed by a win the following weekend at Lubbers Stadium against Tiffin University, would all but guarantee the Lakers a spot. However, if they lose to Ashland on Saturday, things will get murky in a hurry.

It would not be far-fetched to call Ashland the best team the Lakers will have seen this season, even accounting for the University of Indianapolis (No. 2 in Super Region Three) and Ferris State (No. 4 in Super Region Three).

The Eagles present a unique challenge for the Lakers, as their statistics as a team are strikingly similar to GVSU’s. For example, both teams' defenses have allowed an average of exactly 287.7 yards per game. GVSU scores an average of 37.2 points per game and allows 11.3. Ashland scores 36 and allows 12.3. GVSU has eight turnovers this season. Ashland? Nine.

The similarities even extend down to the players. Ashland quarterback Travis Tarnowski, whom Mitchell revered as a "special player," has completed 153 of 244 passes for 2,096 yards and 22 touchdowns with one interception this season. Compare that to GVSU’s Bart Williams, who has completed 136 of 218 passes for 1,939 yards and 22 touchdowns with two interceptions, and it’s clear that both defenses will have their hands full.

“(Ashland is) No. 2 in the nation right now in third-down conversion percentage," Mitchell said. "They are extremely effective, and it has to do with their quarterback. He can extend plays, keep them alive, and he’s a very special player. We’ve got three quarterbacks at some of the top teams (in the league) that are matching up, and I think Saturday is going to be an example of that with Bart (Williams) and Travis Tarnowski. They’ve only thrown three interceptions through nine games, which is pretty remarkable for two quarterbacks to be able to say that.”

Even Ashland’s running back Andrew Vaughn bears a striking resemblance to the Lakers’ star running back, Martayveus Carter. Vaughn has accrued 925 yards, 10 touchdowns and 5.7 yards per carry on 161 attempts, while Carter boasts 7.9 yards per carry on his 117 rushes for 920 yards and nine touchdowns.

The fact that Carter is talented could be a problem in itself. He did not play in GVSU’s 28-3 victory over Northern Michigan University Saturday, Oct. 28, as he nursed an injured ankle, nor did he participate in practice the entire week leading up to the game. His status for Saturday remains in the air, as does that of backup running back Bryce Young-Walls, who left the NMU game after halftime with an injury of his own.

It will be imperative for the Lakers to start well and take a comfortable lead into halftime—something they have not done in the past two weeks against Ferris State and Northern Michigan.

No matter what, the Laker offense is amped to hit the field and compete.

“As a unit, it starts tomorrow starting off with practice," said wide receiver Brandon Bean, whom Ashland has no equal for. "We’ve got to bring a lot of energy, bring a lot of juice, and be excited to play and get better. Like Coach (Mitchell) says, looking at the game plan, we’ll prep for it, and we’ve got to be able to transfer what’s in the film room to the field, and I can’t speak too far ahead in the future, but it starts (in practice). It’s about getting better week to week, so that’s our focus.”

The other players anticipate an electric game, too, and appreciate the unique opportunity to lock up a playoff bid.

“You play college football to be in competitive games," Williams said. "I think we’re fortunate to be in the situation we’re in right now. These games are the fun ones to play–competitive, good, championship-level teams. It’s fun to square up against those guys. I’m excited for the opportunity to prepare all week and show up on Saturday and try to get the win.”

The fact that their opponent is a rolling Ashland squad and not a down-in-the-dumps GLIAC bottom dweller won’t distract the Lakers. Besides, isn’t every game as important as the next to them?

“We can’t let the gravity of this game cloud what matters the most, and what matters most is blocking, tackling, catching, kicking, pass protection, kickoff coverage, you know, getting better at all those things like the extra-point team, the field-goal team and the kick-return team,” Mitchell said. “Those are the things we have to focus on in detail with attention to detail. Excited about the big picture opportunities, but we’ve got to narrow our focus to what matters the most.”

The players and coaches will hunker down and focus on winning a football game. Everyone else will turn their attention to two college-football heavyweights slugging it out in a game riddled with postseason implications.

The matchup is scheduled to kick off from Jack Miller Stadium at 7 p.m. and can be heard on ESPN radio 96.1 or livestreamed from Ashland Athletics’ website.  

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