GVSU set for NCAA quarterfinals against Colorado St. – Pueblo

GVL / Kevin Sielaff - Matt Judon (9) drops Jason Vander Laan (15) in the back field.  Grand Valley defeats Ferris with a final score of 38-34 at Top Taggart Field Nov. 28 in Big Rapids, MI.

Kevin Sielaff

GVL / Kevin Sielaff – Matt Judon (9) drops Jason Vander Laan (15) in the back field. Grand Valley defeats Ferris with a final score of 38-34 at Top Taggart Field Nov. 28 in Big Rapids, MI.

Adam Knorr

The Grand Valley State football team is one of eight remaining teams in the NCAA Division II playoffs. On Saturday afternoon, the Lakers will look to become just one of four.

To do that, GVSU (11-2) will have to go through defending national champion Colorado State – Pueblo (12-1) in the Super Region 4 finals.

“(You have to) reset and refocus each week,” said senior defensive end Matt Judon. “You have to take every game as its own entity and you have to focus on that game. We can’t live off the hype of the Ferris State game and at Ferris we couldn’t live off the hype of the Ashland win.”

Last week, GVSU dispatched of the Bulldogs and quarterback Jason Vander Laan, who ranks fourth in Division II with 1,542 rushing yards.

Things only get tougher against the Thunderwolves.

CSU – Pueblo features a brother tandem at running back – senior Cameron McDondle and sophomore Bernard McDondle – the two of whom rank second and eighth in the nation in rushing yards, respectively.

“They’re really good at running the ball. They have two tailbacks that are about as good as they get in Division II in terms of running the football,” said GVSU head coach Matt Mitchell. “They create a lot of edges (with different formations) and create conflict for our guys.

“They’re a physical football team that has a lot of different ways to run the football, and that’s what they hang their hat on.”

Cameron McDondle averages just over 163 yards rushing per game, while younger brother Bernard has piled up 113 yards per game on the ground in 2015. The offense will be largely unlike any GVSU has seen in 2015, as the GLIAC features a number of quarterback-focused, pass-heavy offenses.

CSU-Pueblo, which plays in the Rocky Mountain Conference, will trot out formations with two or three tight ends to free up holes for the McDondle Duo. The Thunderwolves average 305 yards per game on the ground and just 120 in the air.

Opposing defenses with aspirations of slowing down the rushing attack will rely on the defensive line to get a strong push and meet a McDondle near the line of scrimmage.

Defensively, the line is one of GVSU’s best assets. Judon, De’Ondre Hogan, Alton Voss, Dylan Carroll, Keane Belcher, Mark Rosenquist and Sonny Haskins will need to gum up rushing lanes to avoid allowing the McDondles to hit the second and third levels of the defense, where they become lethal.

“Our interior defensive linemen are playing extremely well. We feel we’ve got some guys down there that can play at a high level,” Mitchell said.

Despite the rush-first offense, the Thunderwolves average 39.2 points per game – just a smidge below GVSU’s 39.5 point per game.

CSU-Pueblo quarterback AJ Thompson has only thrown 162 passes this season, relying mainly on play action passes and senior receiver Kieren Duncan.

Duncan, a speedster, has pulled in 34 catches for 600 yards and six touchdowns this year. The seemingly obvious game plan would be for defenses to pack the box to slow down CSU – Pueblo’s rushing attack, but the Thunderwolves have the ability to pass the ball when needed.

GVSU’s first two playoff games provided Mitchell and his staff with a unique experience, giving them an opportunity to scheme against teams they’d already played in 2015.

“We had some experience with (Ashland and Ferris State) and knew them very well,” Mitchell said. “It’s going to be imperative this week that our players get in on tape.”

The last time GVSU and CSU – Pueblo squared off was in 2013, when the Lakers edged the Thunderwolves 34-30 in the second round of the playoffs.

Perhaps the best comparison to this year’s CSU – Pueblo offense is GVSU’s season-opening matchup against Asuza Pacific last year.

APU, which won the game in double overtime, threw just 17 passes all game. It relied on running back Terrell Watson, who racked up 227 yards and three touchdowns on 42 carries.

Nearly all of GVSU’s defense this year was on the squad for the APU game last year, and will look to draw from that experience to cage the McDondles.

Prior to the first two rounds of the playoffs, CSU – Pueblo had blown out every opponent since the third week of the season. As per www.ncaa.org, the Thunderwolves and the Lakers rank 18th and 19th in strength of schedule, respectively.

Against an offense that has the ability to eat the clock, and a defense that allows just 14.6 points per game, limiting procedural mistakes and turnovers will be at more of a premium than ever for GVSU.

“I think our players have to understand that if they can just run the ball then we’re going to lose, and that’s what (the Thunderwolves) are good at,” Mitchell said. “We have to stop the run. I think our offense has to understand that there are going to be limited possessions.”

GVSU quarterback Bart Williams has piled up 3,690 yards passing this year – just three yards short of breaking Curt Anes’ record for single season passing yards in Laker history. His week-to-week improvement has been evident, but still averages more than one interception each game.

The Lakers will likely be as near to full health as they’ve been since Oct. 17 against Michigan Tech. Sophomore wide receiver Brandon Bean could return from an ankle injury that has kept him sidelined for six games, and Belcher, who has been out since Nov. 14, has a shot to play again.

Other hobbled Lakers, including Jamie Potts, Ben Walling and Jim Walsh will likely be good to go.

The game is scheduled to kick off at 2 p.m. EST on Saturday afternoon in Pueblo, Colorado.