GV football rallies to advance to the quarterfinals

Courtesy / Doug Witte

Courtesy / Doug Witte

Bryce Derouin

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They say it’s not how you start, but how you finish.

Regardless of who coined that saying, the No. 22 Grand Valley State University football team (11-2) would have to nod their heads in agreement with it, especially after Saturday’s 34-30 win over No. 3 and top-seeded Colorado State University-Pueblo (11-1).

At the start, GVSU looked anything but a team that would advance to the quarterfinals of the Division II playoffs, as things went sour for the Lakers early on.

On the first four plays from scrimmage for the GVSU offense, they had a high snap, which resulted in a loss of eight yards, an interception, and then two more high snaps on their second offensive possession that cost the Lakers an additional 22 yards.

While GVSU was floundering on offense, CSU-Pueblo jumped out to an early 16-0 advantage.

“Even down 16-0, we knew we weren’t playing good, but we never fractured at any point in time,” GVSU head coach Matt Mitchell said. “We kept staying together and it’s a credit to our kids.”

After getting off to the worst start imaginable, GVSU started to get it together.

The comeback started when Parling threw a perfect pass to sophomore tight end Jamie Potts along the left sideline for the 40-yard touchdown. Freshman kicker Joel Schipper missed the extra point, so CSU-Pueblo led 16-6.

GVSU would strike again when Parling pitched it out to the right to sophomore running back Kirk Spencer. Spencer spun out of a couple of tackles on his way to a 15-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 16-13.

“Great job of Grand Valley. They came out and withstood some adversity in the very beginning,” CSU-Pueblo head coach John Wristen said. “Grand Valley did a great job of keeping their composure. They’re a veteran team and they demonstrated that.”

CSU-Pueblo would answer on its next drive. Bonner found Kieran Duncan from two yards out for the touchdown pass to push the ThunderWolves lead to 23-13, but Bonner would pay the price. GVSU senior linebacker Luther Ware delivered a big hit as Bonner released the ball. Bonner was down for a few minutes after the play, and suffered an injury to his throwing hand, which had an impact on his passes for the rest of the game.

“He hurt his throwing thumb, and it might be broken and he gutted it out,” Wristen said. “We tried to run the ball in the second half… We needed play-action to throw the ball and he had a little trouble with the delivery and gripping it and throwing it.”

While the ThunderWolves were stuck at 23 points, Parling and the GVSU offense continued to click.

First, it was Parling finding junior wide receiver Darryl Pitts for an 18-yard touchdown pass. Pitts adjusted to the ball and caught it over the defender; all while managing to sneak a foot inbounds to complete the catch. Then it was Parling to Pitts again, this time, a 5-yard touchdown pass in the back of the end zone to give the Lakers a 27-23 advantage at halftime.

“We were able to engineer some drives and attack them a little bit through the air,” Mitchell said. “At halftime, we felt very fortunate to be up by four at half. Coaches and players knew that we didn’t exactly play great in the first half.

In the second half, GVSU was off to another slow start. Parling threw two interceptions on each of the Lakers first two possessions of the half.

Bonner and the CSU-Pueblo offense capitalized on the second interception, converting an 11 play, 46-yard touchdown drive with a 9-yard pass to tight end Stehly Reden in the back corner of the end zone to put the ThunderWolves up 30-27.

Similar to the first half, Parling bounced back after an inauspicious start to lead GVSU to another touchdown drive. Facing a third-and-12 from the CSU-Pueblo 22, Parling threw a flag route in between two CSU-Pueblo defenders to junior tight end Joe Wirth, who leapt and came down with the ball to put GVSU up 34-30.

CSU-Pueblo drove it deep into GVSU territory on two occasions in the fourth quarter, but the Laker defense managed to come up with enough plays down the stretch to maintain the lead.

Early in the fourth quarter from the Laker 32, Bonner threw a deep pass down the right sideline, but it was intercepted by sophomore safety Brad Horling, who came from the middle of the field to pick off the pass along the right sideline.

On the ThunderWolves’ last possession, they managed to drive all the way to the GVSU 16-yard line. With a fourth-and-six, Bonner attempted a slant pass, but it landed well short of his intended target.

“We just had to keep grinding it out,” senior linebacker Charles Hill said. “Guys were excited to be out there. We were excited for the game to be in our hands. We were excited about that and to go out there and get a chance to close it out, bite down on our mouthpiece and—obviously Brad came up with the interception—and we got the fourth down stop.”

After GVSU took over, Spencer reeled off his biggest run of the game, a 57-yarder before sliding down at the CSU-Pueblo two-yard line. Two kneels by Parling sealed the win for the Lakers.

“It felt like this whole game—and I give Pueblo a lot of credit and John Wristner does a great job—we had a lot of self inflicted stuff, errors on our end, but our kids kept battling and kept fighting,” Mitchell said. “To hold that offense down in the second half to seven points was big.”

Parling finished the day completing 16 of 28 passes for 316 yards, five touchdowns, and three interceptions. His quarterback counterpart, Bonner, converted 27 of 46 pass attempts for 297 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception.

Spencer was the leading rusher for GVSU. He accumulated 137 yards rushing on 15 carries. Potts led all Laker receivers with six catches for 123 yards receiving and a touchdown.

“To come up big like this is an honor actually,” Spencer said. “The coaches put me in a position to make those plays and I was happy I could make those.”

Junior cornerback DeVonte’ Hurst was the leading tackler for GVSU, tallying eight stops in the game.

“We got the job done on the road and our guys stuck together,” Mitchell said. “We had guys that didn’t play great. We just kind of kept slugging away and finding a way to get it done.”

GVSU will host West Texas A&M University at Lubbers Stadium on Saturday in a quarterfinal matchup. West Texas A&M defeated Ohio Dominican University 34-27.

“It’s huge of us to be one of eight heading back to Lubbers Stadium where we’re 8-0 this year,” Mitchell said. “We gotta get rested up, healed up, and start looking at West Texas and see what we have to do.”