2023 GLIAC Football

5 Keys To Victory For GVSU Football's Playoff Quarterfinal Showdown

5 Keys To Victory For GVSU Football's Playoff Quarterfinal Showdown

Here’s a look at what No. 2 Grand Valley State has to hone in on as it prepares to visit No. 1 Harding this weekend for a spot in the D-II semifinals.

Dec 1, 2023 by Briar Napier

In first-year coach Scott Wooster’s first trip to the NCAA Division II football playoffs as the head coach of Grand Valley State, he’ll lead the Lakers into a type of game this weekend they’ve rarely (if ever) seen before.

No, GVSU has been to the current point of the D-II playoffs (the quarterfinal round) plenty of times before as the program has won four national championships in its history, after all. It’s about who they’ve never seen at this point (or elsewhere) before, as well as the type of football that their opponent will bring to the table when it all kicks off between them at 2 p.m. (ET) on Saturday.

Grand Valley State and Harding will meet for the very first time on a football field, and the stakes couldn’t be much higher for their inaugural meeting. The Bisons, however, provide a unique challenge with a rarely-seen offense in the modern game that is difficult to defend if run well, and does Harding — which romped to an unbeaten conference title and the top seed in its region with that record-smashing offense — ever run it well.

A potentially electric matchup with another elite opponent may be waiting for them in the semifinals, but before the Lakers can focus on that, stopping Harding’s fearsome attack, especially in enemy territory in Searcy, Arkansas, should be the priority.

It should also be, well, a lot of fun for the viewers at home and watching in person at First Security Stadium.

Here’s a look at what No. 2 Grand Valley State has to hone in on as it prepares to visit No. 1 Harding this weekend for a spot in the D-II semifinals: 

GVSU Must Stop the Rushing Attack

The biggest reason Harding is in D-II’s last eight comes down to one thing — its rushing attack and how teams are usually powerless to stop it. 

The program’s flexbone offense is not just the best in the NCAA (regardless of division) this year, but it’s the best by a significant margin. No one in D-II has been able to touch the Bisons’ staggering rate on the ground of 418.8 rushing yards per game this season as they lead second-placed Southern Nazarene in the category by almost 140 yards on average, scoring a school-record and national-best 67 rushing touchdowns along the way. 

Harding crossed over the 5,000-yard mark on the ground for the season in its second-round win over Central Missouri this past weekend, seeing the program inch closer to the all-time single-season D-II mark of 5,563 rushing yards set by Lenoir-Rhyne in 2013 (per the NCAA record book). 

On the flip side, however, almost no one in D-II is better at stopping the rush than Grand Valley State. The Lakers are No. 3 in the country in rushing defense at just 59.7 yards allowed per game — an effort led by Gene Upshaw Award finalist and star defensive end Christian McCarroll — and have only given up six rushing touchdowns all year. 

By comparison, Harding hasn’t tallied less than 282 rushing yards in any game this season and has scored at least six rushing touchdowns in a single game an incredible six times. Something’s got to give.

Harding Can’t Get Cozy On Offense

Time of possession and game control are going to be crucial Saturday, heavily due to the fact that Harding is excellent at holding onto the ball and squeezing every last bit that it can from each drive. 

No team in America has more time on offense than the Bisons’ average of 34:46 time of possession, and no team in America is better at converting on third down (59.5%), either. Combined with a top-10 turnover margin (1.42), Harding is remarkably efficient in just about everything it does; for instance, the Bisons rarely throw (21 completions all season), but over one-third of the team’s total catches have gone for touchdowns as they’ve notched eight receiving scores in 2023. 

The good news for Grand Valley State is that it had a great preview of what’s to come, and it passed the test with flying colors, in its second-round matchup against Pittsburg State this past weekend. Against the Gorillas, who finished their season second nationally in average time of possession, the Lakers crucially forced four turnovers — including an interception with just over three minutes to play that set up a go-ahead Avery Moore touchdown run with 35 seconds left — to help them advance to the Super Region 3 final. Is a repeat in store against the Bisons?

Lakers Have To Stay Locked In — At All Times

Similar to how Grand Valley State was dared to respond against Pitt State, needing to come back from a fourth-quarter deficit to advance, Harding was also on the ropes in its own second-round playoff clash a week ago and required some late heroics to seal the door shut on its opponent. 

After leading tailback Blake Delacruz ran in a 12-yard score with just under seven minutes left to make it 35-21 to Harding against Central Missouri, the Mules stormed back to likely send the game to overtime thanks to a touchdown pass with 22 ticks left, only for the Bisons’ Gage Price to block what would’ve been the tying extra point and send Harding into hysterics.

The lesson for the Lakers to take from that? It ain’t over ‘till it’s over, especially at this stage of the playoffs — and GVSU already knows all too well what coming back from a seemingly-impossible position is all about. In their season opener against Colorado Mines, the Lakers, down 28-7 in the fourth quarter, tied the game at 28 with under a minute left with a furious rally before the Orediggers kicked a game-winning field goal right before the final horn. 

No lead Saturday in Searcy will be safe until the clock finally hits all zeroes in the fourth quarter; one misstep here or another mistake there could make a world of difference to the final scoreline.

Cade Peterson Needs To Bounce Back

For the most part, Cade Peterson has been Mr. Reliable under center for Grand Valley State all season, capturing the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference’s Player of the Year award earlier this month as he finished the regular season among the national leaders in passer efficiency rating as well as the GLIAC king in various passing and offensive statistics, including passing touchdowns and yards per completion. 

Against Pitt State, however, it was clear that Peterson was mostly held in check all afternoon. He failed to record a passing touchdown for only the second time all season against the Gorillas, throwing an interception in the process as the scrambler was held to just 115 yards through the air and eight on the ground. 

With game management almost certain to play a big role in the game’s final score, it’s vital that Peterson — who could see increased pressure when he drops back to pass for reasons mentioned later in this article — stays ice-cool and helps out in accompanying the Lakers’ bread-and-butter, the GLIAC’s best rushing offense (234.5 yards per game), as the team’s 2023 season is on the line. 

The occasional strike through the air from Peterson, though, certainly won’t hurt GVSU’s chances to advance to the D-II final four, either.

GVSU Must Win Wars In The Trenches

This key certainly has a lot to do with controlling Harding’s vaunted run game as previously mentioned. Still, the Bisons also bring another dangerous weapon to the interior — their defensive line — that must be zeroed in on by the Lakers. 

Three Harding D-linemen (defensive ends Dre Hall and Nathaniel Wallace, plus defensive tackle Wesley Coleman) were named to the All-Great American Conference First Team as they have tallied 21½ tackles for loss (including 16 sacks) between them this season, though Wallace in particular was named the GAC’s Defensive Player of the Year as he anchored a nasty Bisons defense that currently allows the fourth-fewest total yards per game in D-II at 233.7, including just 75.2 yards per game given up on the ground. 

Considering GVSU’s pass protection can be exploited as a weak spot as it’s given up 31 sacks this year, a high number for a team in the quarterfinals, that could mean trouble for the Lakers if they’re forced to go to the passing game to pick up points. And of course, it goes almost without saying that if GVSU’s run game is faltering, off-kilter or otherwise failing to pick up steam due to losing out on blocking battles at the line of scrimmage, Harding’s specialty offense when it has the ball may just blow the Lakers away in the meantime. 

If GVSU is picking up chunk yardage and finding paydirt consistently, however, things may get and stay interesting.