It’s hard to believe the BR-3 Grand Valley State team which lost decisively at home on Sept. 19 to BR-11 Ferris State is one win away from the seventh national championship appearance in program history.
Yet, the Lakers are one of the last four teams standing in the 2015 D2 Football Playoffs as they travel to West Virginia to face Super Region 1 champion BR-4 Shepherd in Saturday’s national semifinals.
(Click here for our preview of the Grand Valley-Shepherd game, including links to live audio, video and stats, plus players to watch for both teams. Also, click here for our preview of Shepherd.)
PAINFUL LOSS …
The Super Region 4 champions, however, will be without one of their leading offensive weapons as tailback Kirk Spencer suffered a season-ending injury to the fibula in his left leg on a first quarter touchdown in the Lakers’ 31-7 quarterfinal win over BR-7 Colorado State-Pueblo.
“I’m heartbroken for the kid,” Grand Valley head coach Matt Mitchell said. “It stinks for us to be heading into the semifinal game with this opportunity right here and be playing meaningful football here with only the 9th semi appearance in Grand Valley history. For him not to be out there with his teammates, I feel incredibly bad for him.”
Spencer rushed for nearly 3,000 yards in his four years in Allendale, including 1,185 yards and 13 touchdowns on 237 carries this season. Where Spencer was as valuable, particularly early in the season, was his pass-catching ability; Spencer was second on the team with 42 receptions for 302 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“We used Kirk out of the backfield as a receiver” earlier this season, Mitchell said. “Lately, because of the growth and development of the entire receiving corps, we’ve been keeping Kirk in the backfield.”
That’s not to say the Lakers don’t have the ability to fill the loss of production the senior from East Grand Rapids, Mich. brought to the table.
“We’ll have to have other some guys step up in his place,” Mitchell said. “That was a big loss for our program when he went down.”
One of those players stepping up after Spencer went down was tailback Martayveus Carter, who not only rushed for a school playoff-record 231 yards against CSU-Pueblo (fifth best rushing performance all-time in Grand Valley football history), but also threw a 22 yard touchdown pass to Nick Keizer in the second quarter in that same game. Carter, a redshirt freshman from East Chicago, Ind., beat out senior Ben Hutchins and junior Terrell Dorsey during camp, both of whom had significant playing experience.
“This was a year where our theme was you have to earn it,” Mitchell said. “[Carter] earned the right to be the number two tailback and get some playing time behind Kurt Spencer. All those games where he got those touches in and in those environments allowed him to step in against CSU-Pueblo when we had the injury and excelled.”
BART WILLIAMS TAKING OFF
Another key cog for the Grand Valley offense is quarterback Bart Williams.
Since earning the starting role, Williams has had his fair share of ups and downs over the course of the season.
“Bart is getting more comfortable back there,” Mitchell said. “The first three weeks, he would’ve had no idea what he likes from a scheme standpoint. We’ve gotten to the point where we’re ready to play our 15th football game; he has a feel for our guys and he watches tape, so we’re starting to go to him more: what do you like, what feels good, what are the throws that you like … so I think that’s helping things too.”
That confidence paid off on the Lakers’ first offensive play against Pueblo as Bart Williams connected with Matt Williams for a 65 yard touchdown strike.
“We gave Bart a list of options for the opening play, and he chose that play,” Mitchell said. “He wanted to attack them with that scheme, he hooked up with Matt Williams and that provided our team a lot with a lot of confidence.”
In his last two games, the sophomore from Grand Blanc, Mich. has thrown for 527 yards and five touchdowns on 32-of-51 passing. Williams, however, has been sacked nine times in those two games.
“The major challenge is that our offensive line has to protect him better,” Williams said. “The last two weeks, we were going against some very active defensive lines with Ferris State and Pueblo. We did not get the protection that we needed; we have to protect our quarterback much better than we did in the last two contests.”
The offensive line concerns played a big factor in the Lakers’ conservative game calling in the second half against Pueblo.
“We weren’t protecting our quarterback very well, and I wanted to make sure we head Bart healthy moving forward,” Williams said. “So I told the offensive line that we’re going grind this thing out in the second half and get out of Colorado. They weren’t going to be able to score on our defense if we keep playing like [did so we were] a little more conservative offensively.”
Since earning the sixth seed out of Super Region 4, Grand Valley has racked up more than a few miles in recent weeks.
The Lakers’ trip to Shepherdstown will be their sixth road game in the last seven games, including two trips to Northeast Ohio to face GLIAC rival BR-33 Ashland and a short jaunt up U.S. 131 to Big Rapids, Mich. for their playoff win over Ferris State.
“We’re used to eating hotel food and traveling a certain way,” Mitchell said.
The team’s travel time from Allendale (west of Grand Rapids) to Shepherdstown will be roughly three hours – an hour and a half flight to Washington Dulles airport followed by an hour-long bus ride to West Virginia, Mitchell noted. It’s a far cry from the 10 hour bus trips from West Michigan to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
“Even though we’ve been traveling in the playoffs, it’s actually been shorter travel, it’s been more focused travel, to get these guys into hotel rooms and meeting rooms and get them secluded a little bit,” Mitchell added. “Especially with a young team, it’s been advantageous for us.”
The traveling doesn’t seem to faze the players in the least.
“At this point, we’re flying charter to these places,” senior tight end/punter Jamie Potts said during the team’s weekly media luncheon on Monday. “It’s a lot better than traveling on a bus for eight or nine hours. Travel is kind of secondary, it’s not something that we’re paying attention to.”
Senior defensive end Matt Judon may have found the best way to handle the grueling travel of late.
“I get on a plane or the bus and I fall straight to sleep,” Judon said. “I just wake up and get to business when we arrive at the destination.”
Not everybody on the Grand Valley staff lacks familiarity with Shepherd and the Mountain East Conference.
Associate head coach Jack Ginn, who joined the Grand Valley staff in 2008, spent two seasons (2001-2002) as an assistant coach at Shepherd before a head coaching stint at D3 North Carolina Wesleyan, while defensive line coach E.J. Whitlow was an assistant at Notre Dame (Ohio) during the time the Falcons football program moved from the GLIAC to the MEC (2013).
“We rely on those guys a little bit for the layout and feel of how things are going to be,” Mitchell said, though Ginn would appear to have more insight on the Shepherd program.
“He’s been around the program, we’ve asked his opinions about what he sees schematically,” Mitchell said of Ginn. “There’s been some insight that he’s provided, but he’s still friends with a lot of guys there. We also want to maintain professional ethics. He’s doing a good job of doing what’s doing for Grand Valley football, but also try and respect the profession and understand what we’re trying to get done from a big picture perspective.”