GVSU returns to Ashland in first round of NCAA playoffs

GVL / Kevin Sielaff - Matt Judon (9) gets a hand on SVSUs QB before he is tackled to the ground.  Grand Valley squares off against SVSU Nov. 14 in Allendale. The Lakers hold on and win with a final score of 24-17.

Kevin Sielaff

GVL / Kevin Sielaff – Matt Judon (9) gets a hand on SVSU’s QB before he is tackled to the ground. Grand Valley squares off against SVSU Nov. 14 in Allendale. The Lakers hold on and win with a final score of 24-17.

Adam Knorr

The Grand Valley State football team will get a rare opportunity on Saturday. The Lakers will square off against the Ashland Eagles (10-0) for the second time this season, looking for revenge, and, most importantly, another chance to play football beyond this weekend.

The No. 12 Lakers and the No. 3 Eagles will go toe-to-toe in round two of their 2015 bout, but round one of the NCAA playoffs.

“I’m excited. I want to play Ashland again,” said senior offensive lineman Jim Walsh. “I had a really bad taste in my mouth from the last game, and getting to play them again just really feels like a chance to right some wrongs.”

On Oct. 31, Ashland beat GVSU 45-31 in Ashland, Ohio. Saturday’s tilt will also take place at Ashland. It’s often thought beating the same team twice in one season is difficult. GVSU head coach Matt Mitchell doesn’t buy into that thought. He buys into playing better to advance.

“We beat Saginaw (Valley State) twice (in 2013), and we beat them worse the second time,” Mitchell said. “It may be harder to beat us twice if we play well. If we don’t play well, it’ll be really easy to beat us.”

In GVSU’s loss to Ashland, the Laker defense — specifically the pass rush and secondary — struggled. Eagle quarterback Travis Tarnowski was sacked just once, and completed 30 of 44 passes for 333 yards and four touchdowns.

GVSU’s defense has been hit-or-miss in 2015. GLIAC Defensive Lineman of the Year Matt Judon (18 sacks) leads the defense, which excels at getting to the quarterback and forcing turnovers.

Against Ashland, the Lakers didn’t force a single turnover, surrendered 534 yards of total offense and allowed Ashland to convert 11 of 16 third downs.

“We didn’t play very well defensively,” Mitchell said. “The entire day, we struggled on third down and in the red zone.”

Ashland’s air raid, led by Tarnowski and sophomore tight end Adam Shaheen, ranks third in the GLIAC with 292 yards per game.

If the Eagle passing attack is their strike-to-kill right talon, their rushing game is the left talon, designed to scratch, maim and wear down opposing defenses.

Junior running back Vance Settlemire, who Mitchell calls, “one of the best in the conference,” has racked up 1,058 yards and 12 touchdowns in nine games. In Ashland’s lone game without Settlemire, the Eagles pulled out a slim overtime win against Walsh (2-8).

“(Settlemire) is really hard to tackle,” Mitchell said. “He’s not a power back and he’s not necessarily a speed back, but he’s very shifty and has a low center of gravity. He’s tough to take down.

“What Kirk Spencer is to Grand Valley, I would definitely make the comparison that it’s what Vance Settlemire is to Ashland.”

The Eagles, who had a bye last week, will take on GVSU for the second time in their last three games. The two teams know one another. With an entire regular season played, the cats have long left their respective bags.

“Both teams are going to stay true to who they are and what got them there,” Mitchell said. “It’s going to come down to our players being fresh, our players being healthy, our players being prepared, and, ultimately at noon on Saturday, our guys (have to) make some plays.”

Being healthy could be an issue for the Lakers. Standout wide receiver Brandon Bean has been sidelined since Oct. 17 with an ankle injury. Defensive lineman Keane Belcher left the Nov. 7 game with an undisclosed injury. Neither is expected to play against Ashland.

Luckily for GVSU, playmakers still abound. At this point in the season, the Lakers know the usual suspects — Spencer, Bart Williams, Jamie Potts and Matt Williams on offense, and Judon, De’Ondre Hogan, Tre Walton and Marquez Gollman on defense.

Despite winning the final two games of the seasons, the Lakers still managed to back in to the playoffs. A 24-17 win over SVSU capped the regular season for GVSU in lackluster fashion.

But that’s in the past. The Lakers are 9-2, and have a new goal — survive and advance.

“At this time of year, there are no style points for me. It’s about winning points,” Mitchell said. “If you have more points on the scoreboard than the other team, we’ll take it any way we can get.”

The game is set to kick off at noon on Saturday in Ashland, Ohio.