Laker football preview: GVSU defense faces road test against offensive-powered Wayne State

GVL / Spencer Scarber grand Valley States Mens football team vs SVSU on Satueday september 30, 2017

GVL / Spencer Scarber grand Valley State’s Mens football team vs SVSU on Satueday september 30, 2017

Brady McAtamney

Simply put, the Grand Valley State Laker football team is rolling.

Back up to the No. 8 ranking in the AFCA Coaches Poll after dropping out of the No. 2 spot following a week-one upset, GVSU has knocked out four straight conference opponents to carry their record to a sturdy 4-1 overall and 4-0 in the GLIAC.

In that span, the Lakers have outscored teams 173-13 while not allowing a single passing touchdown.

However, only one of those triumphs came away from Lubbers Stadium. Things will look different Saturday, Oct. 7, when the Lakers play the Wayne State Warriors (2-3, 1-2 GLIAC) at Adams Field in Detroit. The contest will be the first of three consecutive road games for the Lakers.

Fortunately for the Lakers, the Warriors are still attempting to put pieces in place to compensate for the loss of significant seniors from the past season, which has led to a slow start for the usually triumphant school.

“This is a little bit of a different Wayne team than we’ve seen,” said GVSU head coach Matt Mitchell. “They lost a tremendous amount of talent off of last year’s senior class. Defensively, they have two returning starters, and I think that’s shown up a little bit on tape the last couple weeks against Tiffin and Ferris State.”

The Warriors lost their week-five matchup at Ferris State by six scores, as their defense conceded 59 points. To add insult to injury, FSU did not have their starting quarterback available to compete. 

Throughout their first contests, the Wayne State defense has allowed 34.2 points per game while giving up an average of 176.8 rushing yards and 237 yards through the air.

With weakness comes strength, and for Wayne State, their strength comes from their multiple offensive weapons.

“Offensively, they replaced a few offensive linemen, but their backfield and some of their receivers are intact,” Mitchell said. “That’s definitely the strength of their team.”

Wayne State quarterback D.J. Zezula has been a highlight in the Warriors’ disappointing season. Zezula has thrown for 763 yards on 55-90 passing with 12 touchdowns and three interceptions so far this year. However, Mitchell and the rest of the Lakers know what to expect from him.

“We’ve played him twice, and he can throw the ball down the field,” Mitchell said. “He can throw it quick, and he’s also elusive back there. With his feet, he does a really good job of keeping plays alive. He’ll move around in the pocket and do some things.”

Another offensive Warrior is starting running back Romello Brown. This season, Brown has accrued 326 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns on 86 carries, good for 3.8 yards per carry.

“Romello Brown’s stats are a little down this year relative to last year, but he’s a big, physical and powerful running back,” Mitchell said. 

Besides Brown, the Warriors have two additional 200-yard rushers in their back pocket in Demetrius Stinson, with 47 carries for 267 yards and two touchdowns, and Deiontae Nicholas, with only 15 carries for 228 yards and two touchdowns.

Nicholas doubles as the team’s leading receiver with 15 catches for 145 yards and two more scores, while his teammate Darece Roberson has hauled in 14 passes for 253 yards and six touchdowns.

“They’ve got some wide receivers who have been able to run downfield and stretch,” Mitchell said.

Luckily for the Lakers, their defense has been one of the top units in the country this season. Much of that success can be attributed to reigning GLIAC Defensive Player of the Week Garrett Pougnet. Against rival Saginaw Valley State, Pougnet totaled eight tackles, an interception and a 37-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown.

“We’ve seen a lot of different offenses each week,” Pougnet said. “Coach Lewis and all the other linebackers have been working really hard at it and continuing to get better to get more comfortable each and every week.”

Although Pougnet has been a major factor in the Laker defense, he knows his teammates deserve as much of the praise.

“You know, it’s very nice feeling you have guys behind you that if you’re not there they can make a play,” Pougnet said. “Kyle Short, Jailyn Harden, Jacob Studdard—those guys have really stepped up in our defense, and that gives me a lot of confidence, and it gives the rest of our defense confidence, and everyone is there in the right spot at the right time.”

Even though the matchup against Wayne State is a road game for the Lakers, several key players for the team, including Studdard, wide receiver Brandon Bean and cornerback Tre Walton, grew up in the metro-Detroit area, making them feel right at home on the east side.

“We’ve always done a great job on the east side of the state,” Mitchell said. “We recruit the east side predominantly, and there’s a lot of good football players over there. There’s a lot of guys on our team from the greater Metro Detroit, and there’s a lot of alums there, too.”

Although the battle between the two Division II Michigan football programs would usually grab the headlines, there is another Michigan rivalry that also takes place Saturday.

“We’re butting up against Michigan versus Michigan State,” Mitchell said.

However, the diminished attention on the road doesn’t seem to affect Mitchell and the rest of the Lakers.

“People love Laker football, and they’ll be out there,” Mitchell said. “It feels like whenever we go out there that the visitors’ sideline is always packed with the Laker blue.”

As previously mentioned, this will be the first of three straight games away from Lubbers Stadium for the Lakers. Though not losing sight of the tall task ahead of them, the Lakers are not concerned about altering their approach to this game or any of the ensuing bouts—at least, not as far as where they are goes.

“It doesn’t change anything,” Mitchell said. “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, obviously Friday and Saturday are different being away from home, but how we approach it and how we do it doesn’t change if we’re home or away. What does make a difference is when we’re turning the ball over and making some penalties, so we might have to change things up based on our performance, but the venue doesn’t change anything as far as how we prepare. It has nothing to do with the venue.”

The Lakers and the Warriors are set to kick off in Detroit at 6 p.m. The game can be viewed on Xfinity channel 900 or heard on ESPN radio 96.1.