Midterm grades: GVSU needs A’s, extra credit

GVL / Emily Frye
Football vs. Wayne State

GVL/Emily Frye

GVL / Emily Frye Football vs. Wayne State

Jay Bushen

Back-to-back-to-back tests in the first three weeks of a semester? As unfair as it seems, that’s how one particular group of Grand Valley State University students was welcomed back from summer break.

The GVSU football team (3-3, 3-2 GLIAC), which was expected to finish near the top of its class, did not ace those early tests. It kicked off the semester with three straight losses to ranked opponents.

However, the team has been improving since. Three straight wins have given the team an opportunity to earn a solid grade, but there’s no time to procrastinate. They’ll need to be at their best for the duration.

Coaching: C

Coach Matt Mitchell and his staff have had to deal with sky-high expectations, countless injuries and a brutal schedule so far. Whether it’s fair or not, .500 football is not the standard at GVSU.

Mitchell and Co. have, however, done a nice job of correcting the early on-field mistakes in the last three games.

“I think we’re getting better as a staff,” Mitchell said. “It’s showing up as we go. At the beginning of the season, we weren’t as good as we needed to be as a staff, but I think we’ve continued to stick with the process.”

In this program, success is defined by the final exam: the postseason. It all comes down to whether or not the Lakers make the playoffs.

The NCAA Division II Championships Committee did not pick a single three-loss team for postseason play last year, but six three-loss teams made it in 2012. In other words, the NCAA grades with a curve, but it’s not lenient.

GVSU’s strength of schedule could be worth a boatload of brownie points, but the Lakers might still need to bank on the misfortunes of their peers. The team will need to pass every test from here on out – starting with a huge game at No. 20 Michigan Tech – in order to keep improving these grades.

Offense: C

Quarterback Heath Parling missed two games. Running backs Michael Ratay and Kirk Spencer missed more and are still sidelined. Various O-linemen have been dropping like flies since the offseason.

Injuries have certainly been a factor to this point.

“They’ve played a role up front,” Mitchell said. “Zach Jolly, who was probably one of our starting tackles, blew his ACL in the summer and we’ve been managing that. Eric LaBuhn has been out now for two weeks, a senior tackle, so that played a role, and we lost Ratay and Spencer and that’s going to play a bigger role. At the same time, we’ve got enough talent there.”

It hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for the Lakers. The injuries have been at key positions, and the team has played the top two scoring defenses in the GLIAC. With that being said, the offensive is heading in the right direction.

The passing attack (238 yards per game, fourth in the GLIAC) has been able to make plays with Parling in the lineup. He has completed 56.1 percent of his throws for 982 yards, eight touchdowns and three interceptions.

Meanwhile, GVSU’s ground game (154.2 yards per game, ninth in the GLIAC) has been looking better. The Lakers pounded the rock against Lake Erie and Hillsdale, posting some huge totals in the process, and were effective against Wayne State.

“It’s not going to get any easier throughout the course of our schedule,” Parling said. “That’s got to be something we focus on in practice and we always do, it’s not like we haven’t been, we’ve just got to find a way to be more consistent.

“I have confidence that we will.”

Running back Chris Robinson has been running the ball emphatically in the last few games, and leads the team with 76 carries, 407 rushing yards (5.4 average) and five touchdowns. His play will be key moving forward.

The Lakers still have much to prove offensively, but the best is yet to come.

Defense: B

GVSU’s opportunistic defense is starting to reach its potential, and that’s bad news for the five opposing offenses left on the schedule.

The Lakers have 20 takeaways this season – the second most among Division II teams – with 11 interceptions and nine fumble recoveries.

“We had a couple big plays we gave up in the losses, but overall I feel like we’ve played outstanding,” said senior safety Deonte’ Hurst, who has two sacks, two interceptions, a fumble recovery and a return touchdown to go with a team-high 7.7 tackles per game. “We’re forcing turnovers, we bring a lot of pressure, we’re covering up guys well now and I hope we can keep pushing it forward.”

GVSU gives up the fourth fewest yards per game in the GLIAC (330.8), and the second fewest passing yards (166.7). Much of that can be chalked up to the disruptive defensive line, which has made a difference in every game.

Injuries have kept a number of starters on the sidelines, but reserves are starting to step up, particularly in the secondary.

On Saturday, the Lakers held Wayne State to just 132 total yards of offense in a 17-3 win. If GVSU’s defense plays like that consistently, this group could be scary good.

Special teams: C

Senior punter Chris Picano has been one GVSU’s top players this season. He been booming the ball for a GLIAC-best average of 41.9 yards, and 13 of his 29 punts have pinned opponents inside their own 20 yard-line.

Sophomore kicker Joel Schipper has also been impressive for the most part. He is 24 for 24 on extra-point attempts, and has split the uprights on seven of nine field-goal tries.

However, three special teams snafus have stood out for GVSU.

Schipper missed a 25-yard field goal that would have given GVSU the lead at Azusa Pacific University with fewer than four minutes remaining. In week two, a first-quarter Picano punt was blocked and returned for a touchdown in what proved to be a 28-24 loss to Ohio Dominican. In week four, GVSU had to overcome an early 7-0 deficit after Lake Erie took the opening kick back for a score.

“It’s almost like we’re good when it doesn’t count sometimes,” Mitchell said. “Our kickoff team gives up a touchdown against Lake Erie, but they’re good when the score gets out of hand. There’s enough potential there but the performance is not consistent enough.”

Overall grade: C+ (2.25 GPA)

It was a deflating debut, but GVSU still has a chance to recover.

The fifth-place Lakers already lost to the top two teams in the conference, but can gain some serious ground against the GLIAC’s next-best teams. Following the game at Michigan Tech, GVSU plays Findlay (4-2), Ashland (5-1) and Tiffin (3-3) in the same order.

It won’t be easy, but GVSU certainly appears capable of finishing with an 8-3 record – and perhaps a playoff berth. 

If that happens, the C+ becomes a B+.