A conference game that has a special title doesn’t need any extra hype. Since 2002, Ferris State and Grand Valley State football teams have battled for possession of a trophy in the Anchor-Bone Classic.
Ferris State senior quarterback Jason Vander Laan has no worries on the Bulldogs being ready to play when they travel to Lubbers Stadium in Allendale, Mi., and face Grand Valley State at 7 p.m. ET Saturday in an important Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference showdown.
Ferris State is 1-0 and ranked No. 5 in the AFCA coaches poll. The Bulldogs have also beaten Grand Valley the last three years. Grand Valley, 2-0 and ranked No. 14, is coming off a nice 27-24 road victory at Ohio Dominican, which entered that game ranked No. 7.
Any angle you look at, Saturday night’s game between Ferris State and Grand Valley State is important.
“You don’t have to worry about extra energy, extra excitement or being motivated to play because every single day in practice you have that mindset and focus,” Vander Laan said.
“When we go down there Saturday, everybody will be excited and pumped up because it is going to be a packed out stadium, a rivalry game and we have had success against them in the past. Both fan bases are going to be excited.”
MORE: Division II football power rankings
Over the last three years, the players at Ferris State have created excitement in their fan base. The Bulldogs went undefeated in the regular season a year ago and played in the second round of the NCAA Division II playoffs.
In their home-opener last week, Ferris State drew one of its largest crowds in a decade. The Bulldogs treated them to 40-3 victory.
“It means a lot to the players to get support from the fans,” Vander Laan said. “Having 6,000 people in our home stadium and they were loud, definitely affected the game. It is fun to play when you have fans cheering for you and they can help with momentum. It changes the game.”
Vander Laan is one of the reasons for the success. Last year he won the Harlon Hill Trophy as the best player in Division II. He is off to a great start this season. He has thrown for 320 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 158 yards and one touchdown.
Clearly, the offensive line is giving him time to throw and holes to run through.
“We have a solid group every year,” Vander Laan said. “We only lost two guys, our center and left tackle from last year. We have some guys step up. We moved our right tackle to left tackle and we have a redshirt freshman and transfer splitting time at right tackle. Our backup center got in some at the end of last season. He had a great offseason.
“Those guys are focused. They are a tight-knit group. We have a great coaching staff. Every year it seems like we break our rushing record because we are running behind those guys.”
Vander Laan doesn’t think teams will target him because of the award he won last year. The success of the team makes the Bulldogs the target and through one game, the players are handling it well, he said.
“Our team is doing well not getting too cocky, too confident when people say we are going to repeat as conference champions,” Vander Laan said. “We are staying focused every week.
“Even though we were undefeated in the regular season last year, every single guy coming back still has a little chip on their shoulders because it was very discouraging at the end of the season, losing that playoff game.”
Vander Laan not only succeeded on the football field, he won in the classroom. In the spring, he was selected National Scholar-Athlete of the Year.
“I was grateful for that,” he said. “A lot of times, I’m not sure people understand how much work it is to be a student and an athlete and trying to get good grades as well. There are plenty of other guys who have great grades on our team. I was fortunate to get that award. It recognizes that I am trying hard in school, going to my classes and trying to get my degree. That is just as important as football.”
Series history: Grand Valley State leads 27-15-1
Last meeting: Ferris State won 42-17, Sept. 20, 2014 in Big Rapids, Mi.
Total Offense: Ferris State, 595.0 per game; Grand Valley State, 363.0
Total Defense: Ferris State, 242.0 per game; Grand Valley State, 388.0
Plenty at stake when Minnesota Duluth travels to Sioux Falls
One loss in 11 regular season games last year and that was not good enough to get Sioux Falls into the NCAA Division II playoffs. That result told the Cougars exactly how many good teams are in the Northern Sun Conference and their region.
At 6 p.m. CT Saturday, Sioux Falls, 2-0, plays host to one of their tough conference opponents when Minnesota Duluth, 1-1, travels to Bob Young Field, in an important Northern Sun game.
“You try to keep them so they are not tight, but these kids are smart enough to know, based on the experience last year, you almost can’t afford a loss in our conference to make it into the playoffs out of our region,” Sioux Falls coach Jed Stugart said. “It is a fine line that you walk when you play a team like Duluth. They are probably thinking the same thing. They have one loss. They can’t afford another one.
“You have to figure out a way to have your team prepped for another game, but based on their experience, they have to get out with a win.”
But these high-stakes football games are ones players love to play in. Minnesota Duluth enters the game ranked No. 7 and Sioux Falls is No. 12.
Sioux Falls junior quarterback Luke Papilion said the Cougars need to stick to their mantra of going 1-0 every week.
“Our coaches preach that,” Papilion said. “At the same time, it is a really big game for us. Minnesota Duluth is a great team on both sides of the ball. They are ranked high. They do a lot of great things on the field. I am just excited to play this game. I know our team is excited. This week is going to be a lot of fun.”
So far this season, Sioux Falls is putting up a lot of points, scoring 55 in the first week and 45 last week. The Cougars know they can’t afford to ease up in any week of the season.
“It definitely hurt not getting the sixth spot when the playoff bracket came out,” Papilion said. “It is a tough conference, a tough region. We know that goes into it. It’s not that we are dwelling on the past, but we definitely used that motivation from last year as a key factor to our success this year.
“One thing we want to do is not feel that feeling again. We know we control our own destiny. We will try to go 1-0 every week and hopefully a playoff spot and everything else will take care of itself.”
Tuskegee plays Winston-Salem on ESPN3
Tuskegee coach Willie Slater calls ESPN one of his favorite stations. He has reasons to like it even more. Tuskegee will play Winston-Salem at 1 p.m. ET at Cleve L. Abbott Memorial Alumni Stadium and it will be on ESPN3.
It is an exciting time for Tuskegee to have an ESPN television crew hit its campus. The Golden Tigers are 2-0 and they entered the AFCA coaches poll for the first time this season at No. 24.
“We still have a ways to go,” Slater said. “We are very young, especially on the offensive side of the ball. I think we are getting better every day and every week. If we continue to get better, I think we will have a really good team. That is our goal every year.”
Slater likes the way his defense has played in the first two games. The Golden Tigers beat Clark Atlanta 26-0 in the first game and won 27-14 against Albany State last week.
In the Albany State game, Tuskegee only gave up one long touchdown drive that went 75 yards. The other touchdown came after Albany State returned a punt to the Golden Tigers’ 10.
One of the players who has helped Tuskegee get off to a strong start defensively is senior free safety Michael Robinson. Robinson is fourth on the team in tackles with nine and has an interception that he returned 43 yards. Tuskegee has intercepted six passes in two games.
“We are trying to create a lot of turnovers and get the ball back to our offense,” Robinson said.
Last year Tuskegee lost to Winston-Salem 24-13.
“We look at a lot of film on them,” Robinson said. “We have last year’s game in our head, but we are looking forward to playing them this year.”
Other games to watch:
No. 17 Ohio Dominican at No. 19 Ashland, 7 p.m. ET
No. 3 Northwest Missouri State at Central Missouri, 1:30 p.m. CT