Battle of the Valleys a win-or-go-home game for GVSU

GVL / Eric Coulter
Michael Ratay carries the ball as Charles Johnson jumps over a defender

Eric Coulter

GVL / Eric Coulter Michael Ratay carries the ball as Charles Johnson jumps over a defender

Brady Fredericksen

Head coach Matt Mitchell and his football team have had their focus in one direction all season — in front of them. No matter if the team was in the midst of a six-game winning streak or a two-game losing streak, the mindset was always looking to what’s ahead.

Now, Grand Valley State University is in first place in the GLIAC North, on the fringe of the NCAA Division II Football Tournament with one game in front of them — a date with rival Saginaw Valley State University.

With a win, the Lakers (8-2, 7-2 GLIAC) can make their case for a berth in the playoffs against a team in Saginaw Valley State (7-3, 6-3 GLIAC), that qualified for the postseason last year.

“There is a lot in front of us, but at the same time we have to focus it just like it’s any other game,” said senior offensive guard Andrew Biedenbender. “Like coach said, if we don’t win this game, it doesn’t matter what’s in front of us. It’s all up to us and we have to go and prepare just like it’s another game.

The NCAA Super Region 4 rankings currently have GVSU sitting at No. 8. With a matchup against the No. 10 team in the region, Saginaw Valley State, the Lakers have an opportunity to clinch the out-right GLIAC North title and leave their playoff fate to the selection committee this weekend.

“I told these guys yesterday, we shouldn’t be spending any of our time really looking at (rankings) right now — players or coaches,” Mitchell said. “It won’t matter if we lose Saturday … we can control our performance against Saginaw … I haven’t looked at the regional rankings once, to be honest with you.”

Despite playing well against Wayne State, the beat up GVSU secondary will be put to the test against Saginaw Valley State’s duo of quarterback Jonathon Jennings and receiver Jeff Janis on Saturday. The Cardinals’ aerial duo is the most prolific in the conference. Janis leads all of Division II with 1,470 receiving yards and Jennings leads the GLIAC with 292 passing yards per game.

With the status of safety Erik Thompson and cornerback Mike Hatcher unknown, Mitchell acknowledged that the game could turn into something of a shootout.

“It’s certainly a concern, this is the team that can definitely throw it the best of any of the teams in the North,” Mitchell said. “… I don’t think we’re gonna stop them, we’ve just got to try to be opportunistic and try to slow them down because they’re very prolific on that side of the ball.

Among the issues Mitchell cited as needing improvement this week was the field goal team, which missed another field goal Saturday to fall to just three-of-nine on the season.

Also noted was improvement in the quarterback-center exchange, a struggle for GVSU all season. Improvement there plays into the improvement in the Lakers’ five-step passing game. Mitchell said it’s something that has faltered recently due, in part, to Grimes’ injury and less of a focus on the passing game.

Tailbacks Kirk Spencer and Mike Ratay made their mark on the ground against Wayne State with 346 combined yards, but Grimes struggled, throwing two interceptions. He and the offense will need to avoid those turnovers in a game where scoring often will be vital.

“When the (defense is) dropping eight, bringing three guys, trying to get coverage downfield, I think we attack that when we run the ball,” said senior offensive tackle Tim Lelito. “(It was) just great running by our running backs this weekend, getting the ball out in space.”

Saturday’s regular season finale holds weight in two regards. If the Lakers win, they keep their postseason hopes alive, but a loss all but ends their season.

Judging by Mitchell’s comments this week, the team isn’t thinking of the latter.

“It’s going to be about all of us working together — offense, defense, special teams — and understanding how the performance of one can affect the performance of the other,” he said. “We definitely should have a bounce in our step here … we’ve got a lot to play for coming up on Saturday — we should be pretty excited to come to work and get after it.”
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