Preview: Laker football returns to Allendale after deflating loss to Ferris

GVL / Emily Frye
GVSU faces Ferris State University on Saturday October 21, 2017.

GVL / Emily Frye GVSU faces Ferris State University on Saturday October 21, 2017.

Brady McAtamney

Winning is everything to athletes. Nobody signs on to a new team to be mediocre or to lose. It would be like drinking a Slurpee on a ski lift—it just does not make sense.

So, when the No. 14-ranked Grand Valley State Lakers lost to the rival Ferris State Bulldogs, who moved up to No. 7 in the country after the win, the vibe in the locker room was unenviable. It was only their first conference loss and second overall, but there are just some games that teams circle to start the season and hype up to be more important than the others, right?


“When you coach and play at Grand Valley, every game is a big game,” said head coach Matt Mitchell. “Every game is a must-win game. Every game is that way. I don’t know that there’s any less gravity on a game than another. I get there’s no margin for error now, but there wasn’t any week one. I don’t know that suddenly things change down in the football center. 

“We always have to have that edge if we’re going to win the GLIAC Championship and if you’re going to get into postseason play like we’ve done around here. You can’t make a lot of mistakes. I don’t know that it changes things that much differently.”

Instead of feeling sorry for themselves after the loss to FSU and moping into practice, the Lakers are attacking the week leading into their next game as they have any other—with a passion for the game and the will to dominate.

That means that all eyes are on the Northern Michigan University Wildcats (1-6, 1-5 GLIAC) for the Homecoming game at Lubbers Stadium Saturday, Oct. 28, as GVSU will look to improve upon their 6-2 (5-1 GLIAC) record. 

While NMU’s record may indicate that they are not a dangerous opponent, the Lakers know otherwise. Armed with a brand-new coaching staff, including first-year head coach Kyle Nystrom, the Wildcats bring a slew of weapons into battle and have developed consistently as the season has progressed.

“Jake Mayon, their tailback, is really good,” Mitchell said. “He’s leading the league right now in yards per game. He’s strong, he’s physical and he (runs) downhill. They made a change at quarterback to a true freshman, and you can see him continue to grow and develop over the course of the season.”

On 149 carries this season, Mayon has accumulated 942 rushing yards, six touchdowns and zero fumbles. He provides an impact in the passing game as well, having hauled in 15 passes for 157 yards in 2017.

Their quarterback, freshman Ryan Johnston, has played in six of the team’s seven games, completing 67 of his 108 pass attempts for 938 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions on the year. Included in those numbers is a 363-yard performance against Saginaw Valley State on 20 of 30 passing with one touchdown and one interception.

While there may not be a tried-and-true plan to halt the potent NMU offense, Laker linebacker Garrett Pougnet and the rest of the GVSU defense trust their ability and strategies.

“We’ll come in (to practice), the coaches will have a good game plan for us set in stone and we’ll have to stay true to that,” Pougnet said. “The biggest thing for us is going out there and focusing on our hallmarks: Stay in pursuit, play physical, fit the run up and just do everything we preach every day in the defensive room.”

The Wildcats’ offense is certainly capable of surprising unsuspecting opponents with an ability to score, but their defense is still developing.

“Their defense is young. It’s growing and improving,” Mitchell said. “There’s two defensive interior linemen who are very active. They move them around a lot, and they create a lot of havoc inside—which has helped their defense—but it’s a defense that’s young and is improving.”

NMU has allowed opponents to score an average of 32.1 points per game, though those numbers are heavily weighted by a combined 90 points scored by Angelo State and FSU in the first two weeks of the season.

With those first two games removed, their points allowed per game drop a full 5 points to 27. While certainly not elite, it is a sign of a defense that is finding its feet.

The developing stoppers of NMU will have their collective hands full, though, as the Lakers score an average of 38.4 points per game.

“The goal for the offense is stick to what we’ve been doing,” said quarterback Bart Williams. “Stick to the hallmarks. Run the football, be more physical and keep taking steps forward in the passing game. Let guys go out there and win their one-on-one matchups, whether that’s an offensive lineman on a defensive lineman or a receiver on a cornerback or one of the other backs on a linebacker. 

“It comes down to one-on-one matchups and continuing to get better each week.”

Homecoming could not have landed on a more appropriate date, either, as the bout with NMU will be the first home game for the Lakers since Saturday, Sept. 30, after playing three straight road games across a total of 1,560 miles both ways.

While GVSU may have been a single point away from escaping the three-game road stretch unscathed, they are not letting the thought of “what could have been” haunt their minds. Instead, they’ll enter into Lubbers Stadium Saturday with a far more opportunistic and fierce mindset, courtesy of Mitchell.

“The message for the team is get your eyes up, get your chest up,” Mitchell said. “We got better after a loss week one; we’ll get better (again). Let’s improve, let’s have some energy, let’s have some bounce and get after it against Northern Michigan. These opportunities are rare. We haven’t had a lot of home games. Lubbers Stadium is awesome. 

“We have a unique opportunity on Saturday night to head out and play Northern Michigan, so let’s stop feeling sorry for ourselves for losing a tight ball game on the road, get over it, start attacking what we do in terms of preparation and let that show up on Saturday at 4 p.m.”

The Homecoming game can be streamed live on or heard on ESPN radio 96.1.