Laker football preview: GVSU confident heading into pivotal Northwood bout

GVL / Emily Frye
Bart Williams prepares to throw the ball on Saturday September 9, 2017.

GVL / Emily Frye Bart Williams prepares to throw the ball on Saturday September 9, 2017.

Brady McAtamney

Things have gone differently than some might have thought for the Grand Valley State football squad after an early season upset loss at Indianapolis.

Many teams would have hung their heads and kicked the ground on their way to the bus, assuming the season might have already been lost.

The Lakers have done exactly the opposite. Rather than finding themselves down in the dumps, they have instead “dumped” consecutive opponents to the tune of two blowout wins, shown by their 83-plus point differential in only two games against Davenport and Michigan Tech.

“I think the biggest strength of the team is the people we have on the team, as far as their character,” said head coach Matt Mitchell. “Character, commitment to each other, commitment to Grand Valley football, I think that’s our biggest strength. That’s part of the reason when you go down to Indianapolis and you don’t play well that the team doesn’t fracture. 

We got back to work and we’ve been able to improve.”

Mitchell also pointed to the leadership of the team: “My opinion, the strength of this team, it’s not about a player, it’s not about a play. It’s about leadership, accountability and a lot of intangible stuff that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet that I see every day that these guys are around every day. That’s what allowed us to get better.”

That accountability, mixed with the football skills the team possesses, have led them to inch closer to the top 10 in the AFCA Coaches poll, where they currently sit at No. 12 after starting the second season.

Now returning home after a 42-7 drubbing of Michigan Tech in the Upper Peninsula, the 2-1 (2-0 GLIAC) Lakers welcome the 2-1 (0-1 GLIAC) Northwood Wildcats for a Family Day Weekend celebration.

“We had a great crowd against Davenport; the weather looks awesome coming up on Saturday,” Mitchell said. “We always get good crowds for Family Day, and we’ve got back-to-back home games against Northwood and Saginaw (Valley State), and I know our kids love playing at home, especially after a couple long road trips that we’ve had in two of the first three games. 

We’ve got a lot of recruits coming to the game. It should be a good atmosphere.”

Northwood comes to Allendale on the heels of a 42-14 loss to Ashland in the Wildcats’ home opener, though their starting quarterback and second leading rusher, Joe Garbarino, did not play.

Their offense relies heavily on Garbarino’s playmaking ability as an option quarterback. He is adept at scanning defenses and making the snap decision of whether to let his running back, Dominick Giovinazzo (who has 27 rushes for 142 yards and a touchdown this season), take the handoff or take it for himself. This style is something the Lakers’ defense has yet to see in 2017 and must prepare for.

“You can tell on tape that this is a team that has a tremendous amount of pride,” Mitchell said. “They’re scrappy. They play really, really hard. They put up a lot of points their first two weeks with the option style attack. It has some traditional components, so we have to be on pointe every play for any type of option. You can see, based on the statistics, he’s their second leading rusher and also their quarterback. If he’s playing, he’s a dangerous weapon out there.”

Overall, stopping the deceptive and fast-paced Wildcat attack will be key in earning a Laker victory. The defense is certainly carrying confidence into the matchup after shutting out Davenport Saturday, Sep. 9, and keeping Michigan Tech to only one score the ensuing week, while cashing in two defensive touchdowns of their own to outscore the Husky offense altogether. Since 2001, the Lakers are 96-0 (and 2-0 in 2017) when holding opponents to 14 points or fewer.

On the opposite side of the ball, Northwood’s defense has allowed, by far, the least amount of rushing yards per game in the conference through three games (41.7). However, this could be due to their less-than-stellar early season opponents, NAIA school Siena Heights and GLVC mid-tier performer Missouri Science & Technology, who trailed the Wildcats throughout the games and were forced to throw the ball more. 

This is reflected in their pass defense numbers, as the Wildcats have allowed the second most pass yards per game (279.7) in the conference, only behind Northern Michigan.

Their inability to stop the pass plays bodes well for GVSU’s high-powered offense, especially when it comes to the deadly rapport formed between longtime roommates quarterback Bart Williams and tight end Nick Keizer.

“(In recent years) the tight end’s been running down the field trying to control the guys in coverage, and I think last year we ran into guys just cutting the tight end loose because we never targeted him,” Williams said. “It just adds another dynamic where you have to cover that guy, and if you’re not, we just might throw the ball to him. Credit to Nick and credit to our staff for implementing ways to get the ball on attack to different parts of the field. 

In addition to Keizer, who co-leads the GLIAC with four touchdown receptions this season, Williams has the man with the third most touchdown grabs and third-highest receiving yards per game in Brandon Bean, as well as running back Marty Carter, who has found his rhythm with two straight 100-yard rushing games after a rough outing against Indianapolis.

The Lakers are far from content with their performances and look to get better every day and come out each and every week with a fire unseen previously.

“We have a lot of guys who just aren’t content no matter the outcome, whether we win or lose,” Keizer said. “We want to get better the next week, attack the next game like it’s the most important game of the season.”

The Lakers’ upcoming—and most important —game of the season, against Northwood, is scheduled to kick off from Lubbers Stadium at 7 p.m. Saturday, Sep. 23. The Family Weekend game can be seen on ESPN3 or heard on ESPN radio 96.1.