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NCAA D3 Football Playoffs Preview: Susquehanna Vs. Grove City College

NCAA D3 Football Playoffs Preview: Susquehanna Vs. Grove City College

Here’s a look ahead at the Susquehanna River Hawks’ NCAA Division III playoff matchup against Grove City College at Doug Arthur Stadium.

Nov 18, 2023 by Briar Napier

Susquehanna football has been at this stage (and in this scenario) of the NCAA Division III football playoffs before.

Its upcoming opponent this weekend hasn’t, but they nonetheless share plenty of important characteristics with the River Hawks.

The inaugural Landmark Conference football champion after defeating Lycoming in a winner-take-all regular-season finale this past weekend, SU — the league’s representative in the D-III playoffs — is coming into the first round of the bracket this weekend in a familiar spot as an undefeated host.

Grove City College, which less than a decade ago was going through an awful stretch of multiple winless seasons in a row, is the team that will be visiting Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, this weekend to take on SU, and the Wolverines are looking for some history of their own as one of the D-III playoff field’s three debuting schools. 

It’s mid-November college football with seasons on the line. It can’t get much better for most, but for Susquehanna, it just might be everything.

Here’s a look ahead at the River Hawks’ playoff matchup against Grove City College, scheduled to kick off at noon Saturday at Amos Alonzo Stagg Field at Doug Arthur Stadium:

Susquehanna Football (10-0)

How we got here: Automatic bid as the first-ever Landmark Football Conference champion

The lowdown: Welcome back to the big time, Susquehanna — it’s well-deserved that you’re here. But can you utilize a double-digit win count and national ranking to get through to the second round of the playoffs this time around? 

The River Hawks, who dominated the Landmark Conference and became the league’s first-ever football champion with an unblemished 6-0 league record, get to host a D-III playoff matchup after an unbeaten regular season for the second consecutive year and have a window of opportunity open for a possible deep run. Making that run, however, requires getting the job done on its home field in the first round, something that Susquehanna didn’t do a season ago when it lost to Utica 17-10 in the opening weekend of its first playoff appearance since 2009. 

Now ranked an all-time best of No. 9 in the D3football.com national poll, however, something has seemed a little different about SU this time around — and perhaps a stellar run in program history is only going to get that much more historic. Having finished with both the Landmark’s No. 1 scoring offense (41.2 points per game) and scoring defense (12.9 points allowed per game) by significant margins, Susquehanna both knows how to get into the endzone and prevent opponents from reaching paydirt themselves. 

On offense, points frequently come from the River Hawks’ on-the-ground tandem of Landmark rushing champion and star tailback Tommy Grabowski (963 yards, 13 touchdowns) and dual-threat quarterback Josh Ehrlich (792 yards, eight touchdowns), the latter of whom finished as the Landmark’s No. 3 rusher while tossing a solid 13 touchdowns through the air to just four interceptions. 

Defensively, the River Hawks simply do a lot of things very well; no team has scored more than 14 points on them in any of the past five games, and the pass rush in particular has been stellar with 28 sacks on the season, which ranked as the most in the Landmark. SU will be favored this weekend, but the playoffs have no guarantees. After last season especially, that should be a lesson well-understood by now in the River Hawks’ program.

Grove City College (10-0)

How we got here: Automatic bid as Presidents’ Athletic Conference champion

The lowdown: Grove City is a bit of an interesting case in D-III football. The Wolverines completed their first 10-0 regular season in program history as they romped to the PAC title in a similar strong fashion to what Susquehanna did in the Landmark, yet they enter the playoffs as the lowest-ranked double-digit win team (No. 18) in the latest D3football.com poll. 

Part of that is likely due to Grove City’s incredible rise from rock bottom over the past decade still settling in across the country. Case in point: the Wolverines are less than 10 years removed from having lost 33 consecutive games from 2014-17 as coach Andrew DiDonato has done a spectacular job of getting the program to the heights it’s now reached. 

Grove City has made it to four consecutive Eastern College Athletic Conference bowl game appearances and wins over the past four seasons played, and for the very first time this season, it will appear in the D-III playoffs as the Wolverines take on Susquehanna — a fellow Pennsylvanian school located just over a three-hour drive away — in their first meeting on the gridiron since 1975. Junior running back Nico Flati can go toe-for-toe with the River Hawks’ top rushers as he’s already broken the 1,000-yard barrier this season, but the key matchup of the game might just be in the trenches. Sophomore Wolverines linebacker Ben Bladel is a sack machine, tallying 15 total on the year (14 of them solo) as he is currently tied for second in all of D-III in the category, going against a SU offensive line that has only given up 13 sacks total throughout the season. 

If Bladel can get through and disrupt what the River Hawks want to do on offense, SU could be in for a dogfight it doesn’t want to be looped into; when it’s facing a fellow unbeaten team beaming with confidence themselves, playing with fire that much can get particularly dangerous.

What’s At Stake In Susquehanna Vs. Grove City College

From Susquehanna’s perspective, in particular, two huge achievements are up for grabs in its first-round playoff matchup this weekend. 

First, it’s the obvious fact that the River Hawks would get to play another week in the postseason after the disappointment they went through a season ago of hosting following a perfect regular season, only to fall flat right at the end with their season on the line. And second, a potential regular-season rematch could be on the horizon — and it could be Susquehanna’s ticket to the D-III quarterfinals if it plays its cards right. 

The winner of Susquehanna-Grove City will play the winner of Endicott-SUNY Cortland on Nov. 25 in the second round of the playoffs; that’s potentially significant in the event of a River Hawks victory in the event if both they and Cortland were to win because the two squads have already faced off once this season. Back on Sept. 16, Susquehanna upset the then No. 10-ranked Red Dragons in a 38-35 thriller on the road in which SU — down 35-21 with just over four minutes remaining — stunned Cortland with 17 unanswered points to steal a victory as River Hawks kicker Christian Colasurdo booted through a 32-yard field goal as time expired to win it. 

There’s no guarantee that specifically, that matchup will happen — Endicott, which picked up a top-five win earlier in the year against Hardin-Simmons, is no slouch, either — but if it does, SU can take solace in the fact that it has beaten a playoff opponent before and can very well do so again.

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