Three point stance: Battle of the Valleys preview

GVL / Emily Frye
Marty Carter - game against Findlay on Saturday Oct. 29, 2016.

Emily Frye

GVL / Emily Frye Marty Carter – game against Findlay on Saturday Oct. 29, 2016.

Beau Troutman

Grand Valley State football is ending the season on what may be its toughest two-game stretch of the regular season.

The Lakers (9-0, 8-0 GLIAC) will travel to Saginaw Valley State to spar with the 5-3 Cardinals this Saturday, Nov. 5, and then will hit the road again the following week to play the 7-2 Wayne State Warriors Saturday, Nov. 12 in the regular season finale.

Should the Lakers win out, they will retain their current position as top seed in the Super Region Four and receive a first-round bye after the regular season.

For any of that to happen, though, the Lakers need to go 1-0 this week in the 2016 installment of Battle of the Valleys.

“Great teams, they seize windows of opportunity,” said GVSU coach Matt Mitchell. “I’ve been trying to get that point across to our staff, and I think our leadership understands that we have a unique window of opportunity. We’re not looking anything past Saginaw Valley State.

“This is our window of opportunity and we need to attack that window of opportunity.”

Kickoff is at 3 p.m., and GVSU can clinch a GLIAC championship with the win. GVSU leads the all-time series 34-11.

One: The rivalry

The Cardinals are a much-improved team this season than last year’s 1-10 squad, but have some issues that GVSU will be able to exploit Saturday.

All five of the Cardinals’ wins have come against opponents with a losing record—their last win came against the 0-9 Lake Erie Storm. Against opponents with a winning record, the Cardinals are 0-3, with losses coming against Findlay (37-19), Ohio Dominican (21-10) and Wayne State (42-14).

After some injuries at the quarterback position, the Cardinals will be led by freshman Ryan Conklin. The last time the Laker defense faced a freshman quarterback, it was Oct. 15 against the Truman State Bulldogs’ quarterback Jaden Barr. Barr finished 10-of-24 for 100 yards with two interceptions and was sacked three times in a 41-3 loss. The Bulldogs, like the Cardinals, also had a winning record coming into the game.

Mitchell spoke highly of the Cardinal defense, which has been solid up to this point. Though they only rank eighth in yardage allowed-per-game in the GLIAC (375.4), they allowed the fourth-fewest points per game (21.6).

The offense is a different story. The Cardinals are 10th in points-per-game (24) and 12th in yards-per-game (322). Simply put, a freshman quarterback and a below-average offense are going to have a tough time against a seasoned, experienced GVSU squad that has national aspirations.

But all of that is on paper. GVSU is preparing for a physical opponent on the road in one of the most historic rivalries in the GLIAC. Though there is a big talent differential, the Cardinals will keep this one close, just as they did a year ago in Allendale when their one-win squad lost 24-17 to an eventual national semifinalist.

“They play hard,” said GVSU quarterback Bart Williams. “It’s not going to be a cake walk. Even last year, they put up a fight. Every team gives us their best shot.”

Prediction: GVSU 34, SVSU 21.

Two: Top five

Both statistically speaking and in the words of Mitchell, Bart Williams had his best performance of the season this past Saturday, Oct. 29 in the Lakers’ 28-17 win over Findlay.

Williams finished 22-of-31 for 325 yards and three touchdowns, and was not sacked a single time. With that performance, he is now fifth all time in school history in passing (65) touchdowns and seventh in yardage (6,439).

With numbers like that, it is hard to fathom that Williams is only a redshirt sophomore. Williams is not looking ahead to what he could potentially accomplish in four years wearing Laker blue—in fact, he isn’t even looking past this Saturday.

But Williams does acknowledge that his comfort level under center for the Lakers has never been better.

“I’ve played pretty well the last three weeks, but there’s still things to get better at,” Williams said. “You’ve got to go out and improve every practice, keep sticking to it because it’s not just going to happen on accident. You have to consciously make decisions to work hard every day.”

Three: Depth on the D-line

GVSU junior reserve defensive end Keane Belcher had his first solo sack of the season against Findlay, and it was one of the more crucial plays of the season.

With the Lakers leading just 21-17, Belcher sacked Oilers’ quarterback Rhys Gervais on third down-and-four near midfield with few minutes remaining in the game. The next play, the GVSU pass rush again got to Gervais, who was only able to muster up a wobbly pass to no one in particular thanks to the mob of GVSU defenders. The defensive stop dealt a death blow to the Oilers’ chances.

Belcher’s sack highlighted GVSU’s strength rushing the passer—the Lakers lead the GLIAC with 34 sacks this year. The Lakers are confident in proven rushers like Sydney Omameh (10 sacks) or Dylan Carroll (five sacks), to reserves like Belcher.

This will prove to be a valuable asset to a team looking to make a deep postseason run.

“Throughout the game, we can just all play hard because we’ve got the bodies,” Belcher said. “You basically just go all out and give it your all, because you got the next man that’s ready to go out there and do the same.”