GVSU loses to Shepherd in NCAA semis

GVL / Kevin Sielaff - Matt Williams (24) sits on Grand Valleys sideline as the game winds down to a close.  The Lakers fall to the Rams of Shepard University with a final score of 34-32 Dec. 12 in Shepardstown, West Virginia.

Kevin Sielaff

GVL / Kevin Sielaff – Matt Williams (24) sits on Grand Valley’s sideline as the game winds down to a close. The Lakers fall to the Rams of Shepard University with a final score of 34-32 Dec. 12 in Shepardstown, West Virginia.

Adam Knorr

Four yards separated the Grand Valley State football team and a shot at overtime in the NCAA Division II semifinal game.

But Bart Williams’ two-point conversion attempt fell incomplete. The Lakers failed to recover the ensuing onside kick, and the Shepherd Rams (13-0) kneed the clock out.

A furious late rally came up just short, as GVSU (12-3) was bounced from the playoffs one game shy of the national championship with a heartbreaking 34-32 loss to SU in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

“Great job by Shepherd. Great hosts, that was a good football game – great football game by a couple really good Division II teams,” said GVSU head coach Matt Mitchell. “Obviously they made more plays than we did. For us it was all about those red zone opportunities.

“We had plenty of red zone opportunities and we didn’t take advantage of them. We threw a pick, we had two field goal opportunities that we didn’t convert, we had a fourth-down play that we didn’t get.”

In a game that ranged from bizarre to unpredictable to expected, the Lakers rarely led. SU took a massive blow in the first quarter, as standout quarterback Jeff Ziemba dislocated his right shoulder after taking a hit in the backfield.

Ziemba didn’t return to the game, but backup quarterback Connor Jessop filled in admirably, pioneering the Rams to a 14-3 lead in the first quarter.

The Lakers had chance after chance in the first half. GVSU started four drives from within its own 49-yard line, but didn’t come up with points on a single one.

“It was frustrating,” Mitchell said. “Obviously we had them backed up pretty much the entire second quarter and we were getting good field position to start each of the drives. (We) had some opportunities (in the first half) to probably cut this thing to at least a one-score lead.”

An inability to rush the ball in the first half limited GVSU’s offensive options. The stout SU secondary thrived as the defensive line feasted on Laker rush attempts.

Bart Williams threw an interception in the end zone at the end of the first half, and the Lakers headed to the locker room down 14-3 and sporting -12 rushing yards.

While the Rams’ passing attack has been their primary offensive focus all season, the loss of Ziemba changed things. SU relied more heavily on the rushing game, and senior Allen Cross shined.

Cross rushed for 161 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries.

“Credit goes to the offensive line. Those guys were opening up some holes and they really used it as a motivation factor that they weren’t mentioned earlier this week,” Cross said. “The GV coach came out and he talked about Jeff (Ziemba) and Billy (Brown), which anybody would, and I would talk about them too, but they really felt like they were overlooked coming into the game.”

The Lakers were able to gain more traction on the ground in the second half, but their early struggles and a quick deficit forced Bart Williams and the Laker offense to play right into SU’s strength — its secondary.

“That’s a quality defense they have at all three levels of the defense and I think we all knew it and we had a lot of respect for it,” Mitchell said.

The Rams scored on the game’s opening drive, as Billy Brown pulled in a 25-yard touchdown pass from Jessop.

GVSU marched down the field and managed to get onto the board as Joel Schipper knocked down a 29-yard field goal.

But the Rams kept coming. Cross broke free on a 55-yard touchdown rush to send his squad ahead 14-3.

Though the second quarter went without a score, it was anything but uneventful. Schipper missed a 37-yard field goal try, but the Laker special teams came back in a big way.

Linebacker David Talley busted through on an SU punt, and blocked the kick. GVSU recovered deep in Ram territory, but a few plays later, Bart Williams was intercepted by SU’s Adam Coles in the end zone to end the half.

GVSU stormed out of the locker room a changed unit in the third quarter. The Lakers meshed rushing and passing and converted a number of third downs en route to a 21-yard touchdown pass from Bart Williams to Urston Smith.

SU started its next drive from its own 6-yard line. After Jessop hit Tony Squirewell for a first down, GVSU’s Collin Schlosser forced a fumbled, which Marquez Gollman snatched out of the air.

Gollman sprinted 14 yards up the sideline and tumbled into the end zone, and just like that, GVSU took its first lead at 17-14.

But it wouldn’t last.

Early in the third quarter, Cross rushed for his second touchdown of the day on a 36-yard scamper. GVSU blocked the extra point, however, and Tre Walton returned it to the Laker end zone for two points. After the dust cleared, SU led 20-19.

The Lakers got the ball back, but Adam Coles intercepted Bart Williams again on the first play from scrimmage. Soon after, Jessop found Brown on a short pass for a Ram touchdown.

GVSU got possession following the kickoff, but CJ Davis jumped a slant pass from Bart Williams and took the interception back for a touchdown. The extra point sent SU ahead 34-19 with 10:30 to go in the game.

With under five minutes remaining, the Lakers faced a desperation fourth-and-goal from the Shepherd 3-yard line. Bart Williams extended the play with a scramble and hit Terrell Dorsey on a short touchdown pass to pull GVSU to within eight points at 34-26.

The Lakers recovered the ensuing onside kick, but the play was called back after an offside penalty. Shepherd recovered the second onside attempt. The Rams gained a first down, but faced a fourth-and-2 from the 25-yard line. SU elected to go for it, and GVSU’s Jacob Studdard broke up a deep pass to give the Lakers the ball back with just over a minute to go.

Bart Williams hits Matt Williams on a 40-yard gain on a desperation fourth-and-10, and, a few plays later, the two connected again for a 35-yard touchdown.

GVSU had two shots at the two-point conversion following a pass interference on SU on the first try, but Williams’ pass couldn’t find its target on the second attempt and GVSU’s season drifted away.

“I feel for the seniors and I’m happy to get this far but it would have been nice to make it one more step,” Bart Williams said.

“I enjoyed every step of it,” said GVSU senior defensive end Matt Judon. “Coming from West Bloomfield until now, it’s been (an) enjoyable process and I’m going to miss the f**k out of it.”

Schipper had a 37-yard field goal attempt blocked in the second half.

Late in the second quarter, SU defensive back Tre Sullivan was ejected following a targeting after hitting Jamie Potts in the head in the end zone. Potts was not a factor the rest of the game.

“We played without him toward the end of the year so it wasn’t huge,” Bart Williams said. “Obviously nice to have him in there but that’s not what stalled us out on offense.”

Bart Williams finished 22 for 52 for 334 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. Matt Williams led the GVSU receivers with eight catches for 161 yards and a touchdown, as Smith chipped in six catches for 96 yards and a touchdown.

Carter rushed for 87 yards on 21 carries in place of injured senior Kirk Spencer.

“I do think at times there with some of the run game our inexperience there at tailback reared its head,” Mitchell said.

Jessop completed 15 of 20 passes for 173 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Brown was a major headache for the GVSU defense, hauling in nine catches for 132 yards and two touchdowns.

“First of all we knew we were going to be playing against a really good football team and there’s no doubt that they are,” said SU head coach Monte Cater. “At the same time, I think to overcome some of the things that we had to with injuries and things like that and some things that just flat didn’t go our way, I can’t be prouder of a staff or a team for what they were able to do.”