NCAA Division-II Semi-Finals: Lakers v. Rams

Grand Valley State Lakers Shepherd RamsNCAA Division-II Football Playoffs

No. 12 Grand Valley State Lakers (12-2) vs.
No. 5 Shepherd Rams (12-0)


The Grand Valley State Lakers and Shepherd Rams will take to the field on Saturday at 12 PM EST. For the Rams, this is just their second trip to the NCAA Division-II semi-finals, with their previous appearance occurring in 2010 when they lost to Delta State. This is Shepherd’s ninth appearance in the playoffs.

Grand Valley State has a long history of success in the post-season. The Lakers have won four National Championships since 2000 and are one of the winningest programs in college football history (.730 winning percentage). It is an odd sight when this team is not battling for the national title.

How They Got Here:

For Grand Valley State, they gained an at-large bid after finishing third in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. The Lakers were 8-2 in the regular season, with their only losses coming against conference rivals Ferris State and Ashland. This is a team with a very potent offense. They put at least 24-points on the scoreboard in every game this season.

In the first round of the playoffs they took on No. 3 ranked Ashland seeking to gain a little revenge after losing to the Eagles 45-31 earlier in the season. Ashland grabbed the early 7-0 lead, but three straight scores by the Lakers put them on top 21-7. The two teams exchanged touchdowns before the half. The Eagles were able to cut the deficit to 10, but two late touchdowns sealed the game as Grand Valley State won 45-28.

In the second round the Lakers took on Ferris State. They had crushed GVSU during the regular season, 61-24, but this was going to be an entirely different game. This was a back and forth affair that saw both teams make big plays. The Lakers led 24-20 at half, but fell behind to start the third quarter. They would retake the lead, only to see it taken back from them again. Matt Williams touchdown reception put Grand Valley State ahead 38-34 and that is how the game would end. QB Bart Williams threw for 334-yards and 4-touchdowns in leading his team to victory. Matt Williams had 5-catches for 126-yards and 2 TDs.

Last weekend the Lakers took on No. 4 ranked Colorado State-Pueblo, the defending National Champions. Three quick touchdowns put Grand Valley up 21-0. It was a great start that was tainted when star running back Kirk Spencer broke his leg on his seven-yard touchdown run. CSU-P got seven of it back on a five-yard touchdown pass from AJ Thompson, but that was all the GVSU defense would allow. Marty Carter threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Nick Keizer in the second quarter and Joel Schipper would add a 26-yard field goal in the second frame and that was all the scoring.

The Lakers won 31-7 behind a stout defense that allowed just seven first downs and 157-yards of total offense. Meanwhile the offense was rolling up big numbers as Marty Carter rushed for 240-yards and a touchdown in place of the injured Spencer.

The Shepherd Rams went undefeated in the regular season. They were powered by a potent offense that scored at least 41-points in all but one game. In their final three games they looked completely dominant, winning by a combined score of 137-44.

The Rams had a first round bye, but in the second round of the NCAA Division-II playoffs, they narrowly defeated Indiana University of Pennsylvania, 17-13.  Billy Brown made 11-catches for 159-yards and a touchdown and Isaiah Ross had 7-tackles, a sack and he had a key blocked kick.

Last week Shepherd welcomed Slippery Rock to town. The Rock took the early 7-0 lead on a two-yard score by Shamar Greene, but Shepherd responded with 25 unanswered points to take the 25-7 lead. Billy Brown caught a 74-yard touchdown from QB Jeff Ziemba and Allen Cross had two touchdown runs to lead the way. Ziemba finished 15-26 for 255-yards and 2 TDs, and Cross finished with 82-yards and the 2-scores.

Team Comparison

Rankings: (National Rankings in Each Category Are in Parenthesis)

Shepherd Rams
Offense: Passing: 287.2 (25) Rushing: 133.7 (117) Total Offense: 420.8 (62) Points Per Game: 40.3 (14)
Defense: Passing: 196.8 (55) Rushing: 93.2 (9) Total Defense: 289.9 (11) Points Allowed Per Game: 16.5 (7)

Grand Valley State Lakers
Offense: Passing: 282.1 (31) Rushing: 179.5 (65) Total Offense: 461.6 (27) Points Per Game: 38.9 (19)
Defense: Passing: 263.4 (149) Rushing: 128.6 (34) Total Defense: 392.1 (87) Points Allowed Per Game: 26.3 (69)

Note: The Rams players are listed first in each comparison

Quarterbacks: Jeff Ziemba vs. Bart Williams

Ziemba is having an outstanding season for the Rams. In 12 games he has thrown for 3,272-yars and 29-touchdowns with just 4-interceptions. He is quite accurate with his passes, boasting an impressive 62.7 completion percentage. The junior is a natural leader and is smart in the way that he runs this offense.

Williams is a big-time playmaker who has passed for 3,872-yards and 42-touchdowns. His passing total puts him third in the nation, and his passing touchdowns ranks first. His skills make him tough to defend against. If there is as knock on the GVSU QB it is that he will force balls at times, throwing 17-interceptions.

Advantage: Grand Valley State

Runnings Backs: Allen Cross, Jabre Lolley vs. Marty Carter

Cross is the primary ball carrier for Shepherd, but Lolley will get his share of touches as well. Both are steady ball carriers who get yardage after first contact, but neither has huge breakaway speed. Together they are a force, and the two should have a huge impact on this contest.

Carter takes over with Spencer out which should be a devastating blow, but he showed last weekend that he can carry the load and still gain big yards. Carter has rushed for 854-yards this season with 7-touchdowns. He has a very impressive 7.1 yards per carry average.

Advantage: Even

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: Dalton Boyd, Billy Brown, Tony Squirewell, Jamie Deason vs. Nick Dodson, Jamie Potts, Matt Williams, Nick Keizer

Brown is the big play guy for Shepherd, gaining 1,265-yards on 74-catches with 7 TDs. He has gone over 100-yards in each of the team’s first two playoff games and is a game changer. Tony Squirewell was second on the team in receptions, yards and TDs, and knows how to get open.

Williams has speed and is very tough to defend. The junior has 64-receptions for 1,196-yards and he is third in Division-II with 16-touchdown catches. He averages 18.7 yards per catch and knows how to find an opening to make plays. The loss of Spencer was quite costly in the passing game, as he was the team’s second leading receiver, but Jamie Potts is a quality No. 2 behind Williams. He gained 804-yards and is another speedster, averaging 19.4 ypc. Brandon Bean has 6 TD receptions.

Advantage: Grand Valley State

Offensive Line: Lavonte Hights, Zach Buffkin, Khalil Proctor, Levi Lloyd, Jake Kingston vs. Ben Walling, Brandon Revenberg, Dan DeLuca, Jim Walsh, Aaron Cox

Shepherd boasts a fairly young offensive line, with two sophomores and a freshman, but this is an outstanding group. They all weigh at least 290 with Proctor being the most stout at 321. All are very athletic and move well. This is a well-coached group that protects their QB and makes holes in the running game.

The Lakers have a more experienced offensive line with three seniors paving the way for this offense. Four of the five starters are 6-5 with the other being 6-4. They are a tough group to try to get through and they give their quarterback time to find the open receiver.

Advantage: Grand Valley State

Defensive Line: Shaneil Jenkins, Tatah Ndeh, Myles Humphrey, Isaiah Ross vs. Mark Rosenquist, De’Ondre Hogan, Alton Voss, Matt Judon

The defensive line for Shepherd is one of the best in the country. The matchup of this group against the Lakers offensive line is going to be one of the keys to the game for sure. Jenkins leads the team with 11.5-sacks and is a relentless ball pursuer. Ross adds 6.5-sacks and Humphrey has 5. This group will disrupt the rhythm of the offense.

Judon may be the best pass rusher in all of Division-II. His 20-sacks leads the country, but he is more than just a great pass rusher. The end plays the run well and finds a way to shed blocks. Both Voss and Hogan play well off of blocks and have an extra level in the motors that makes them tough to defend.

Advantage: Even

Linebackers: Kevin Robinson, Jaylen Johnson, Cam Reynolds vs. David Talley, Collin Schlosser

Robinson is the leading tackler for the Rams and he is a flat out ball hawk. He defends the pass exceptionally well and is quick to get himself involved in plays. Johnson is another one who has speed and great instincts. Reynolds complements Robinson well in defending the pass.

Because of the scheme the Lakers use there are only two primary linebackers who play a significant amount of time. Talley is the team’s leading tackler with an impressive 125-tackles. He literally can do it all, sacking the quarterback four times and intercepting two passes. Schlosser is great on the blitz and reads the movements of the quarterback well to get into position to make plays.

Advantage: Grand Valley State

Defensive Backs: Octavius Thomas, Tre Sullivan, Adam Coles, CJ Davis vs. Brad Horling, Donte Carey, Garrett Pougnet, Marquez Gollman, Tre Walton

Sullivan is a very instinctive safety who hits hard and covers the slot receiver well. Davis and Coles are quality cover corners and Thomas is great at playing close to the line.

Gollman is a corner but is second on the team in tackles, a testament to how fearless the young man is.  He is not afraid to come up on the run and he covers well in the passing game. Carey has outstanding instincts that allows him to make plays. He leads the team in interceptions with six. Pougnet, Gollman, and Devin McKissic all have three interceptions. Walton has 28 pass defenses-breakups.

Advantage: Grand Valley State  

Special Teams:

Ruan Venter is an outstanding punter, averaging 41.4 yards per kick. He has had 16 downed within the 20 and 11 punts of over 50-yards. Ryan Earls made 18-23 field goals (78 percent) with a long of 41-yards. Davis averages 31.7 yards per kick return and 11.1 per punt return.

Jamie Potts is an equally outstanding punter. He averages 41.o-yards per kick, with 17 downed inside the 20 and eight kicks of better than 50-yards. Joel Schipper was an impressive 15-17 on field goal attempts (88.2 percent), and he hit a long of 46. His only two misses have been from beyond 40-yards. The loss of Spencer really hurts the return game.

Advantage: Shepherd

Coaches: Monte Cater vs. Matt Mitchell

Coach Cater is in his 29th season as the head coach at Shepherd. He has a very impressive 252-113-2 record and has seven trips to the NCAA Division-II playoffs since the school joined the Division-II in 1997. He is a great motivator who really knows how to teach the game and get the most from his players.

Matt Mitchell became the next in a line of great Grand Valley State football coaches, and is quickly building an impressive legacy of his own. Coach Mitchell is 57-18 since taking over the head coaching position and this is his second trip to the semi-finals in three seasons. This is also his second 12-win season in that time. The Lakers Coach is one of the best at calling a game.

Advantage: Even

Outlook: The numbers say that Shepherd has one of the best defenses in the country and the old adage is that good defense stops good offense any day of the week. This is where the numbers are misleading. Grand Valley State really has an impressive defense that is playing their best right now. Add to it an outstanding offense, even without Spencer, and this makes the Lakers the team to beat. They have cast aside the two teams that beat them this season and pushed their way past the defending national champions. Expect the Grand Valley State Lakers to jump out on top early and then roll to the win, 38-21.

Featured Image Courtesy of MLive.

By Robert Pannier

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