Tony Nicolette

Week Nine Previews

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Well, Gang, eight weeks are in the books...the stretch run begins! With three games left in the regular season, the race in the North is tight like everyone expected. With a bunch of the teams log-jammed at the top still having to play each other, the remaining ride should be a wild one. Hillsdale does have a one game lead so if they win out that can take the North uncontested. In the South, Ashland has really gone unchallenged since the first couple of weeks of the season and controls its own destiny for its first ever outright GLIAC Title.

The first round of Regional Seedings (as I like to call them...they aren't really "rankings", per se) has been released. Those of you that know me and have read my posts for a while know that I think the NCAA releases these too early. After Week Nine or even Week Ten is when it would make the most sense, since SO much can (and invariably DOES) happen from week to week. Anyone remember the craziness that happened during Week Eleven of last year alone? Saginaw, Wayne, and Indy all lose, Hillsdale's SOS takes a big hit, Grand Valley won big and was as hot as any team in the land, and that was just within the GLIAC alone! Suffice it to say the brackets looked plenty different from what many might have guessed on that Saturday morning! With that in mind, I'll stick to my credo of not posting any comments or projections until we head into the final week of the season. OK, so I'll even break that by saying that Ashland is really the only team in the GLIAC at this point that controls its own playoff destiny. Close out the season unbeaten, and the Eagles will make the field and (barring something ridiculous) have at least one home game in the postseason. lip is zipped on the playoffs for a couple more weeks!

Ferris State (4-3, 5-3) at Wayne State (5-2, 5-2)

This is a weekend stacked with big North Division tilts. Three of the four North contests feature clubs that have won at least five games on the season, and this is the first of that lot. Ferris is coming off their shoot-out victory over Tech, and will try and follow-up their 56-point outburst with a similar effort on the road in Detroit. The Bulldogs have been coming on of late, and were explosive on both sides of the ball against Tech to tally 601 total yards. Jason VanderLaan had is best game yet under center, and did so against one of the league's top defenses. Can he post those kinds of numbers against a good D two weeks in a row?

It will be a test to be sure, especially considering this time it will have to come on the road. Wayne's defense has given up yards at times, but has done a terrific job of getting big stops when they need them and forcing key turnovers. While they should present another challenge for the Bulldog O, the concern we see is a propensity to struggle with running QB's. Anthony Mifsud had a lot of rushing yardage a few weeks ago for Hillsdale, and last week against Northern the Warriors let QB Cody Scepaniak (who has played little in his career until the last few weeks) engineer a 21-point second half comeback to tie the game late. If those two have been able to run effectively (and throw at least some), what is Wayne going to do about the most prolific running QB in the league this year? This could be a big problem.

We really try not to overreact to teams from one week to the next. Sometimes adjustments get made, guys are hurt, whatever. That said, we've seen a few instances this year where running QB's have given Wayne fits. We've also seen a Ferris club that has come on of late and a big chunk of their offense is predicated on what the QB can do. And one thing that still concerns us about the Warriors is the passing attack...can it be effective throughout the game, not just in the fourth quarter? What if Ferris is able to jump out quick and Wayne has to abandon what they would prefer to do early? We still feel that Wayne has a bit more stature in this league and they are tougher at home. Plus, the Warriors are great at takeaways and Ferris has a tendency to cough it up. That's why our gut telling us that Ferris will protect the ball and win would classify this as an (albeit slight) upset. Ferris 38, Wayne 33.

Northern Michigan (1-6, 2-6) at Northwood (3-4, 4-4)

After struggling through the first half of the season, Northern seems to have found a new pep in their step of late. They knocked off Grand Valley two weeks ago, and darn near yanked the rug out from under Wayne at Adams field last Saturday. After biding his time for nearly four years, QB Cody Scepeniak is really getting his feet under him and the Wildcat offense is responding. A mere two weeks ago, the suggestion that the 'Cats would pump out 30+ over their next two outings was, well, a stretch. Now Northern is playing with some fire and they'll look to keep things going in Midland.

The Woodies have been tracking in the opposite direction of the Wildcats. After racing out to 4-0, NU has dropped their last four. Certainly, the level of competition has increased as their four losses have come at the hands of clubs that are a combined 22-8. No real shame there. Plus, for the most part they played those games relatively tight...until last week at Grand Valley. Despite the final margin being only 14, Northwood was lucky to have the margin be what it was. Several GV mistakes helped keep NU in the game, and the T'Wolf offense sputtered a bit during the first collegiate start of Mark Morris at QB. While Aaron Shavers is still listed as questionable for Saturday, there are rumors flying that he might be out for the rest of the season. While Morris might be the future for Northwood, in the present he's a guy with one start under his belt who (as of yet) is not near the multi-purpose threat of Shavers. If Shavers doesn't go, it is definitely a help to Northern.

Not to be a broken record, but pretty much everyone in the league knows that the U.P. teams (and especially NMU for some reason) aren't the same when they travel. However, they have played better and with more confidence last two weeks and they are likely to get a Northwood outfit whose offense is without its top two playmakers. Much like in the game above, stature-wise of the last couple of years Northwood is likely the favorite at home, but the gut is once again thinking upset here. If they avoid turnovers, we'll take Northern in a tight one. Northern 26, Northwood 24.

Findlay (5-2, 5-2) at #10 Ashland (7-0, 8-0)

The biggest South tilt of the weekend sees Findlay pay a visit to Ashland. Both have a lot riding on this, in part due to the rivalry these two have. Beyond that, Findlay is trying to keep whatever faint division title hopes and (even fainter) playoff thoughts alive. For Ashland, the prospect of an unbeaten regular season is now very real. In addition, they can clinch the South with a win, and ensure that they at least maintain their lead in the overall GLIAC standings. Last, when it comes to the playoffs the Eagles need to keep winning. Their strength-of-schedule rating will take a hit with Tiffin and Notre Dame left on the slate, but being undefeated nearly always cures all ails in the eyes of the committee.

While those goals we just discussed are both real and lofty, this year's Ashland club seems to be doing a better job of only focusing on the task at hand...and that's the next game on the schedule. The Eagles will have their hands full, to be sure, as seniors Clay Belton and Monterae Williams are two of the league's premier playmakers. With that said, the Ashland defense is probably the toughest outfit that the Oilers will have faced thus far. Add to that that Belton has been perplexingly ineffective at times (9 of 21 with two picks a week ago is a prime example), and one has to wonder just what we're going to get from Findlay's offense this week. Williams carried the load when Belton wasn't sharp last week (268 yds and 5 TD's...that's a hefty load), but the notion that either of them is going to light the world on fire against the Eagle D seems like a stretch.

Let's also not forget that Ashland's offense has been far and away the most efficient in the league this year. They lead the league in total offense, have yielded the fewest giveways (six), and have held the ball an average of six more minutes per contest than their foes. And, we'd be remiss for not mentioning Belton's counterpart...Taylor Housewright, who has yet to throw a pick this year and leads the league with 21 TD passes. While we like Findlay to play up to Ashland's level in this one and make it interesting, we really feel like the only team that can beat Ashland on Saturday is Ashland. If they protect the ball like they have all year and keep Belton from being particularly effective, the Eagles should prevail. Ashland 31, Findlay 21.

Notre Dame (0-7, 1-7) at Malone (1-6, 1-6)

Normally, when one looks at a team that can run the ball and has a workhorse RB, we typically think that the team with that sort of foundation would at least be somewhere in the .500 neighborhood...perhaps better. Notre Dame racks up more than 176 yards per game on the ground, and Pedro Powell has already eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark on the season. The Falcons should be doing OK, right? OH, yeah...forgot about the Defense. Gotta play good D too, right? NDC can't seem to figure that part out, allowing a league-worst 48.8 points per outing.

On Saturday, the Falcons will get their best chance to overcome their porous crew when they take on the league's lowest-scoring outfit, Malone. The Pioneers have only mustered 15.6 points per game, and have had a consistently hard time putting points on the board. In total, the Malone offense only has 14 total TD's this year...Findlay's Monterae Williams has run for that many on his own thus far, and there are seven QB's in the GLIAC that have thrown for at least that many. Tough sledding for the Pioneers this year, to be sure.

So, which will win out on Saturday...the league's worst O or the league's worst D? We've seen a few spots for NDC to break-through in games this year and they just haven't done it. It's hard to get on board with them again, but there isn't much that warrants a pick on Malone's side either. We're gluttons for punishment, so we'll...
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...once again and take the Falcons. Notre Dame 29, Malone 28.

Tiffin (1-6, 2-6) at Ohio Dominican (4-3, 5-3)

Ohio Dominican finally got a streak going last week...after alternating wins and losses through the first seven weeks, the Panthers notched a second straight victory in Week 8 to run their record to 5-3. They have averaged 54 points per game in those two contests, and if they can keep that kind of production going it will be a big problem for a Tiffin offense that is averaging only 15.8 points per game on the year.

The ODU offense has been much more efficient of late, and that has helped in the victories. RB Brandon Schoen has continued his stellar first campaign, notching more than 100 yards in both of the wins, while QB Mark Miller has thrown six TD passes and no INT's the last two weeks. Moving the ball effectively and KEEPING it are surefire bets to have your offense run well, and we don't see a lot of reasons to think this won't continue on Saturday, especially considering that Tiffin has generated only twelve takeaways on the year.

As long as the Panthers continue to be smart with the ball, we just don't see Tiffin's offense being able to generate enough points in this one. Ohio Dominican 44, Tiffin 24.

Michigan Tech (5-2, 5-2) at #21 Saginaw Valley (5-2, 6-2)

The axiom that defense wins championships as usually been held in pretty good regard. Of course, that also presumes that a great defense shows up pretty much every week...and that seems to be an issue for Tech. While they are still statistically the best D in the league against the run, the Huskies got rolled last week for 244 rushing (and 601 total) yards at Ferris...and worse yet, 56 points. In their two losses this year, the Huskies have yielded 53.5 points per game. That doesn't bode well for them as they hit the road to face a Saginaw offense that is chock full of big play ability and has yet to have a truly "break-out" scoring game this year.

That's not to insinuate that the Cards haven't been effective. On the contrary, you don't get to 6-2 by sheer luck. And while they are only averaging just over 30 points per game, they have the GLIAC's most prolific passing attack and have been running it with more power of late. All that said, while the Cards have thrown it well this year they have yet to truly be in a "shoot-out". Few of their opponents have had the passing game that Tech does, and this is probably the first time that SV has faced a passing attack that can match them "chuck for chuck".

So who wins? Well, Saginaw being at home helps...and facing a UP team at home helps a little more. Add in the fact that in the two games where Tyler Scarlett has gone absolutely bonkers throwing the ball (GV and Ferris), the Huskies have lost both times (and we don't see MTU being able to run the ball that much more here to control pace). Last, the Cards have likely worked on correcting the types of things that stifled them a week ago at Hillsdale...not to mention Hillsdale is much better at defending the pass than Tech is. If Tech successfully controls pace, then the scoring will be down and tighter. If they don't, the air raid sirens will be a-blazin'. Calling for shoot-outs is more fun, so what the heck: Saginaw 50, Tech 48.

Lake Erie (2-5, 2-6) at Walsh (2-5, 3-5)

After cobbling together a two-game win streak, Lake Erie got run over (literally) by Monterae Williams and Findlay last week. Walsh enters this one also having won two of its last three, but the Cavaliers bring to this party something that Lake Erie doesn't: Defense.

Walsh has been steadily stingy all year, which their 3-5 record belies. They've only allowed 30 points twice, and three of their five losses were by 12 points or less. Tech and Ashland are the only "resounding" defeats they have suffered, and their defense has done a fantastic job of keeping them in games...and they've kinda had to as the offense has had its issues. That said, the ground game has been pretty solid (even with out leading rushing Toba Olarewaju) and that bodes well against an LEC D allowing a buck-79 per game on the ground and is last in the GLIAC in total defense.

Fawcett will be a busy venue on Saturday with Malone hosting Notre Dame at 1:00 and Walsh playing in this one at 6:00. It's a great day for a ballgame...let's play two! Folks in the NE-Ohio area can get their fill of a GLIAC double-dip within the confines of a single stadium! While we picked against the home-standers in Game 1, we'll take the hosts in Game 2. Walsh and the defense prevail. Walsh 19, Lake Erie 16.

Grand Valley (5-2, 6-2) at #19 Hillsdale (6-1, 6-2)

This match-up has turned into a pretty nice rivalry over the last few seasons. Prior to 2009, the Lakers had won ten straight in the series...and most of those games weren't especially close. Since then, however, the clubs have split the last four contests and the three regular season versions of those have all been decided by three points. While this growing rivalry has some heat to it, that seems to come more from a genuine respect that these programs hold for the other than anything else. That might be nice, but toss in the loser of this game being (in all likelihood) eliminated from playoff contention and we have ourselves a biggun'.

Hillsdale has certainly been the more impressive of the two of late. Despite a sluggish performance in the D two weeks ago, the Chargers responded with a solid win on the road at Ferris and even more impressive result with a dominant second-half against Saginaw this past Saturday. Coach Otterbein and his staff seem to have their crew tuned-in as they navigate the most difficult portion of their schedule, and All-America RB Joe Glendening continues to be the focal point. He leads the league in rushing, and now sits only 167 yards shy of setting a new career rushing record at Hillsdale. While that's all nice, perhaps the biggest catalyst this year is the development of the Hillsdale defense, which is now second in scoring and total defense, and sets the GLIAC pace against the pass. We talked earlier about how NDC can run the ball but isn't so hot on D. Hillsdale has BOTH of these components put together and they are leveraging them into another great season.

As for the Lakers, they bounced back a week ago after a two-game...well, debacle. They looked terrible on defense for two straight weeks, but took a big step forward last week. They took advantage of getting a couple of key guys back as well as an undermanned Northwood offense...but most importantly, they simply played better. They're going to need to take it up another notch Saturday, as not only can Glendening tote it but Anthony Mifsud is a threat to do damage on the ground as well. The slide wasn't all the defense's fault, as the Laker O looked lost for a couple of weeks as well. Not having Isiah Grimes at Northern really hurt, and his return vs. Northwood was huge as GV racked-up 42 points despite three turnovers.

For us, the key here is Grand Valley beating Hillsdale at their own game: possessing the ball, keep their defense off the field, and cashing in on as many drives as possible. We think the Lakers have the ability to do this...they can stretch the field if needed with Grimes under center, but the Laker ground game has to do more...and they can. Case in point: GV averages 210 yards per game via the ground despite starting their fifth-string (as of the end of spring) RB Kirk Spencer. Spencer has quietly assumed the starting role, and leads the league in per carry average (7.1) and has tallied 129 yards or more in three of his four starts. If GV can avoid the turnovers and Spencer can match Glendening's output, the Lakers have a great chance here. The problem is that we just aren't sure if the GV defense will be able to hold things for four quarters, especially now that both starting corners are out and the "Mifsud rushing wild-card" is at play. This should be a good one, but Hillsdale has the advantage at home and against the league's most porous run defense. Hillsdale 33, Grand Valley 27.

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