No. 9 GVSU slated for road match at No. 5 Ashland

GVL / Kevin Sielaff -  Garrett Pougnet (25) stops the Huskies advance. Grand Valley squares off against Michigan Tech Oct. 17 at Lubbers Stadium in Allendale. The Lakers defeated the Huskies with a score of 38-21.

Kevin Sielaff

GVL / Kevin Sielaff – Garrett Pougnet (25) stops the Huskies advance. Grand Valley squares off against Michigan Tech Oct. 17 at Lubbers Stadium in Allendale. The Lakers defeated the Huskies with a score of 38-21.

Adam Knorr

On Saturday, the Grand Valley State football team will travel to No. 5 Ashland in a clash of top GLIAC teams.

Ashland (8-0, 8-0 GLIAC) marks the fourth top-15 team the No. 9 Lakers have played this season. The Lakers have navigated the conference gauntlet effectively, besting ranked foes Ohio Dominican and Michigan Tech, with the lone slip-up coming against Ferris State.

In a Halloween matchup at Ashland, the Lakers (7-1, 6-1 GLIAC) aren’t expecting any surprises.

“They’re a good football team,” said GVSU head coach Matt Mitchell. “They’re balanced – good offense, good defense. When you play at Grand Valley, every game matters, but obviously our players understand the importance of this contest.”

The Eagles have busted their way to an undefeated record with a strong offense and a bruising defense. Ashland hasn’t played a schedule has tough as GVSU’s, however, with the lone win against a ranked opponent coming in a 27-24 victory over Ohio Dominican.

The Lakers are coming off a 52-7 home win against Findlay in a performance highlighted by a defensive that GVSU head coach Matt Mitchell said was, “Probably as good as (the defense) played all season.”

Against Ashland, the Lakers will be put to the test again.

Offensive statistics place GVSU and Ashland in an eerily similar position, though the Lakers’ tougher schedule in the GLIAC North makes it a moderately skewed reading.

Both the Lakers and the Eagles average just over 40 points per game, and the two offenses have each turned the ball over 11 times this season. Ashland averages a whopping 500 yards of offense per game, but the Eagles have not played a defense in the top six of yards allowed per game in the GLIAC.

Statistics only say so much, however. Both teams are riding waves of confidence heading into the top 10 matchup, and a chance turnover or lucky bounce could be the deciding factor between two GLIAC heavyweights.

The Eagles are led offensively by sophomore quarterback Travis Tarnowski, who has completed 158-of-257 passes for 2,229 yards and 19 touchdowns. Tarnowski has, however, thrown seven interceptions.

The Laker defense leads the GLIAC in turnovers forced. If GVSU can dial up a pass rush with similar success to the one against Findlay, rushed throws from Tarnowski could end up in Laker hands.

Senior defensive end Matt Judon, who leads the nation with 13.5 sacks, has been a terror in the pass rush all season, and introduced Findlay quarterback Rhys Gervais to the turf on a few occasions last weekend.

“Findlay was a little more stationary in the pocket, which helped (Judon) know where the ball was going to be,” Mitchell said. “Week-to-week we just have to break down what the offense is doing and get our best players at the point of attack and (Judon) is one of them.”

Tarnowski isn’t a cookie-cutter dual-threat quarterback, but has the ability to scramble if needed.

The Eagle rushing attack is spearheaded by junior Vance Settlemire, who is averaging nearly 119 yards per game and has racked up nine touchdowns this season.

Sophomore wide receiver Adam Shaheen has been Tarnowski’s clear top choice this season. Shaheen has pulled in 50 receptions – more than double the next-closest total of 24 from junior Jamie Hence.

GVSU’s still-young, yet fast-improving secondary will have to limit explosive plays and continue to tackle on first contact to slow a prolific Eagle passing attack.

“Tre Walton has emerged as our top corner, so we’re leaving him out there a little more than we did earlier in the season to let him play,” Mitchell said. “We’re rotating (Devin) McKissic and (Jacob) Studdard both and those guys have both improved.”

The Lakers, an unusually young team by GVSU football standards, have seen growth from the secondary in recent weeks. GVSU has not been plagued as much by big plays as it was last season.

Defensively, Ashland features a number of juniors and seniors in its front seven. The Eagles’ linemen and linebackers are a physical bunch, and have been effective in run stopping in 2015. Senior defensive tackle Tim Lehr is the biggest factor in the pass rush, as he has totaled 4.5 sacks this season.

“They’re definitely a physical ball club. The defensive linemen get after it. It’s a dirty, physical ballgame, (you’re) sore the next day,” said GVSU offensive lineman Jim Walsh. “I think that’s why they’ve had decent success stopping the ball. They’ve got some big physical kids in the interior and some kids who pin their ears back and get after it on the edge.”

After throwing five interceptions through the first five games of the season, GVSU quarterback Bart Williams has settled in, and has thrown just two picks in the past five games. Part of Williams’ improvement has been due to solid pass protection, and a newfound willingness to scramble from the pocket when need be.

The Lakers have been largely effective in special teams, and all-everything punter Jamie Potts has emerged as a stellar punter and placekicker Joel Schipper has missed just one field goal this season. In recent weeks, however, Mitchell has been frustrated with the number of penalties the Lakers have taken on punt returns.

GVSU is slated to get play underway on Oct. 31 at 7 p.m. at Jack Miller Stadium in Ashland, Ohio.