No. 18 GVSU set to host No. 12 Michigan Tech

GVL / Emily Frye     
Junior Alton Voss on Oct. 3rd.

GVL / Emily Frye Junior Alton Voss on Oct. 3rd.

Adam Knorr

On Saturday, the Grand Valley State football team will switch things up for its biggest game of the year since the Ferris State matchup.

Against the Bulldogs, GVSU encouraged its fans to participate in the Black Out theme. Against No. 12 Michigan Tech, the Lakers are putting on a White Out.

New themes. New tides. New endings.

The No. 18 Lakers will look to avenge a 2014 loss to the Huskies in Houghton, Michigan. More importantly, the Lakers will look to improve to 6-1 overall and 5-1 in the GLIAC to stay in the conference title hunt.

Against MTU, it won’t be easy.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for our team. They’re good – there’s a reason they did what they did last year in advancing to the playoffs,” said GVSU head coach Matt Mitchell. “(They’re) extremely stingy on defense. They’re not giving up anything on the ground.”

The Huskies have the second-best rush defense in the GLIAC by yards, surrendering just 78.6 yards per game on the ground. While MTU’s secondary is not a serious crutch, passing has proven to be the best way to put up points on the Huskies in 2015.

It’s going to be up to the Lakers to punt a dent in the MTU rush defense, which may allow them to open up the passing game against the weakest part of MTU’s defense.

Quarterback Bart Williams has been at his best when GVSU has established the run game. In four games in which GVSU gained 128 yards rushing or fewer, Williams has thrown six interceptions. In the two games in which GVSU rushed for 200 yards or more, Williams has thrown just one pick.

Those two games were against Hillsdale and Lake Erie – neither of which have especially strong defenses, but establishing a strong rushing attack early in the game against MTU could put pressure on the secondary to aid in the rush defense.

It’s easier said than done, however, and the Huskies’ front four is plenty strong in its own right. If the Lakers see the rushing game falter, Williams could be looked at to throw the ball 30-40 times against pass-specific coverages.

His last performance, against a strong Wayne State secondary, was one of his best of the season. Williams completed 25-38 passes for 327 yards, four touchdowns and an interception.

“(Williams) continues to step up and he’s getting more comfortable on the football field,” Mitchell said. “(He) was getting ball to a lot of different guys. Some of our playmakers made plays when the ball was contested.”

Some of those playmakers are the explosive receiving trio of Brandon Bean, Matt Williams and Jamie Potts. If they continue to give Williams a number of options, the Laker quarterback could be on pace for another big day.

“Obviously this year is a little different in the fact that we have a lot of receivers who are making plays,” Potts said. “It has been a little different in the past where we’ve usually had a go-to guy and not as many weapons as we have this year. It’s nice to not have all that pressure on you and have other guys that can make plays too.”

While MTU’s defensive line gets a lot of attention – and deservedly so – the Lakers aren’t anything to scoff at. Led by senior Matt Judon, who is for fifth in the nation in sacks per game, GVSU trots out a number of imposing bodies up front.

“I’ve got (De’Ondre) Hogan, Sonny Haskins, Mark Rosenquist and Keane Belcher in the middle and when they’re in the middle they’re taking up double-teams and it’s just me out there on the island one-on-one with the tackles,” Judon said. “I’m very confident in my skills. If it’s me vs him I’m going to win every time.”

It may be a challenge for GVSU to get to the quarterback on Saturday, however. Dual-threat quarterback Brandon Cowie has completed 72.1 percent of his passes in 2015, which leads all of NCAA Division II.

MTU helps Cowie in this endeavor by running a number of slants, hooks and short routes, rarely venturing into deep-ball territory. Cowie spreads the ball around to a number of receivers, and the Lakers will look to Tre Walton, Devin McKissic and Jacob Studdard to keep the ball in front of them and limit short passes from turning into big plays.

“(The Huskies) do a good job of getting the ball out of (Cowie’s) hands quick. There’s a lot of times they’re throwing the ball to guys in space – advance-able footballs to some of their wideouts,” Mitchell said. “They’re extremely efficient throughout the course of the year on third down.”

To be exact, MTU has converted 61 percent of its third downs this season. If the Lakers can force Cowie and the Husky offense into third-and-long situations, it may present MTU with scenarios in which it has to throw the ball downfield – something it has largely avoided this season.

The Huskies rank 105th in Division II in total yards per game, and have not scored more than 35 points in any game. The Lakers have scored more than 35 points in four games, but MTU’s defense will be one of the best GVSU has faced all season.

Although the drive from the Upper Peninsula is long, MTU has excelled away from home. The Huskies have not lost a road game since 2013, when they lost to GVSU at Lubbers Stadium in a 49-3 rout. MTU got back at the Lakers last year with a 35-17 win to drop GVSU to 3-4 overall.

Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. on Saturday at Lubbers Stadium.