GVSU to face tough test in GLIAC opener

GVL / Kevin Sielaff 
Brandon Bean (3) looks to evade the Southwest defense. Grand Valley State squares off against Southwest Baptist Thursday, September 3rd, 2015 at Lubbers Stadium.

Kevin Sielaff

GVL / Kevin Sielaff Brandon Bean (3) looks to evade the Southwest defense. Grand Valley State squares off against Southwest Baptist Thursday, September 3rd, 2015 at Lubbers Stadium.

Adam Knorr

Although it wasn’t done in the cleanest fashion, the Grand Valley State football team improved to 1-0 after a 36-28 win over Southwest Baptist last weekend.

Head coach Matt Mitchell knew some improvements needed to be made. Come Saturday, the No. 20 (AFCA) Lakers will enter likely their toughest two-game stretch of 2015.

On Saturday, GVSU will travel to No. 7 Ohio Dominican (1-0) for a game that could start to define the Lakers’ season.

The Panthers went 11-2 in 2014 and were picked to repeat as GLIAC South champions. They squeaked out a 28-24 win at Lubbers Stadium last season.

ODU topped Malone in a week one blowout and stands at 1-0 in conference play.

For the Lakers, the ODU matchup is their first GLIAC matchup. A win, and GVSU will be 2-0, on a crash course for rival Ferris State next weekend. A loss, and the Lakers will fall to 1-1, and will have to dig themselves out of an early conference hole.

The stage is set.

Last season, ODU strung together two 90-yard touchdown drives thanks to a couple big plays to shock GVSU in the closing minutes. Junior running back Brandon Schoen torched the Lakers, rushing for 183 yards and two touchdowns.

“(Schoen) is 100 percent their best player offensively,” Mitchell said. “We’ve struggled with him in the past few years. If he gets to the second level of your defense he’s a home run hitter. If he hits the line of scrimmage full speed it’s over.”

Schoen is back for his senior season in 2015, and has a strong supporting cast in the backfield.

The Panthers are a rush-heavy squad, and picked up 249 yards and five touchdowns on the ground against Malone in their 59-21 win. Schoen, however, only had seven carries for 25 yards.

Redshirt freshman Esaias Chapman rushed for 91 yards on eight carries, while redshirt sophomore Darryl Johnson bruised his way to 44 yards and three touchdowns.

ODU played three young quarterbacks throughout the game, but gave the most time to sophomore Grant Russell. The Panthers lost last year’s starting quarterback to graduation, and will lean heavily on their rushing attack week to week.

That will mean going up against GVSU’s defensive line.

Last week against SBU, senior defensive end Matt Judon racked up 4 and a half sacks and nine total tackles en route to being named GLIAC Defensive Player of the Week.

GVSU’s defensive front was great at getting to the quarterback in passing scenarios, but the Bearcats gained a strong 171 yards on the ground. Freshman dual-threat quarterback Trent Edwards II entered the game in the second half and gave GVSU’s defense fits, gaining 68 yards on the rush before sacks.

ODU’s rushing attack will be markedly better than SBU’s, and the Lakers will have to shore up their rush defense and force the Panthers’ young quarterbacks to throw.

“We were great for three quarters but didn’t sustain it,” Mitchell said. “We gave up too many rushing yards in the fourth.”

As with every football game, the turnover battle will be crucial. ODU, with its consistent rushing attack, is a possession-oriented team.

If the Panthers force more turnovers than they commit, GVSU’s offense may be pressured to turn into a quick-score unit – something it is capable of, but not something it strives to be.

“(ODU is) not going to turn the ball over,” Mitchell said. “If we want to beat them we can’t turn the ball over offensively. If we turn it over three times we’re not going to force four turnovers.”

The Laker offense found some playmakers in week one, but consistency and growth will be key in Columbus, Ohio on Saturday.

GVSU quarterback Bart Williams looked sharp in his first career start, throwing for 300 yards and four touchdowns. Williams also threw two interceptions, but looked to have a solid rapport with his receivers early in the season.

The biggest area for offensive improvement will have to be in the run game if the Lakers want to pick up statement wins the next two weeks. The offensive line was great in pass protection and didn’t allow a single sack against SBU, but tailbacks were unable to gain the line of scrimmage a number of times.

GVSU gained 128 yards on the ground, but 52 were picked up on one Martayveous Carter rush. Take away that outlier, and Carter gained 32 yards on nine carries, while senior Kirk Spencer picked up 35 yards on 16 carries.

“If we can get our backs to the line of scrimmage we have five-yard runs, seven-yard runs,” Mitchell said. “When it was bad it was negative runs. We didn’t really have short runs, it was negative or five plus.”

For the Laker offense to be fully effective, the running game has to be successful enough to open up the passing game.

Finally, GVSU has to avoid taking costly penalties. The Lakers saw a potential third down stop turn into an SBU first down last week due to a late hit, among other penalties.

“It’s embarrassing really,” Mitchell said. “We had 12 penalties. We talk a lot in the program about pre-snap and post-snap penalties. We had 12 on Saturday and nine were before the ball was snapped or after the whistle was blown and that’s too many.”

Every year, a primary goal for GVSU football is to win a GLIAC championship. The ODU tilt will be the first chance for the Lakers to make a big stride in the right direction.

The game will kick off at 12:30 p.m. and can be found on the radio on ESPN 96.1 FM.