Over the last few weeks, Grand Valley State head football coach Matt Mitchell has been asked about the team playing so many playoff road games.
The Lakers, 12-2, will play their fourth playoff game in a row on the road when they take on Shepherd, 12-0, noon ET Saturday at Ram Stadium in Shepherdstown W. Va. The game will be televised on ESPN3.
Grand Valley won at Ashland, at Ferris State and Colorado State-Pueblo to reach the NCAA Division II semifinals.
As a program, Mitchell said, Grand Valley never talks about home and away games.
In fact, playing a national semifinal game on the road against a team from another region is invigorating for everybody involved. The coaches and players get to prepare for a team they may have never seen before.
“You get to see a new environment,” Mitchell said. “I have seen Shepherd on tape and it looks like a great venue, a great atmosphere. We are going to bring our band. We are going to have some fans. We are excited about a new atmosphere, a new environment. It is fun. It is kind of what this experience is all about.”
The 2015 Lakers made it this far by adapting to change after last season. Grand Valley has a championship pedigree. The Lakers won four out of five titles from 2002 to 2006 and was runner-up in 2009. In 2013, they reached the semifinals.
But last season Grand Valley slipped to 6-5 and didn’t make the playoffs. Mitchell, who is in his fifth season as head coach and 12th overall at Grand Valley decided to do things a little different this season.
“I’ve been calling the defense for 11 years. I stepped away from that and handed it over to some very qualified assistants,” Mitchell said. “Having a new voice and new look helped. I took over special teams and helped with the offense a little bit. We changed our offense, changed terminology, changed schemes.”
RELATED: DII Football Championship Bracket
Mitchell put more effort into developing leadership on the team. A leadership council was selected, causing players to lead.
“I tried to get this team to be more peer driven instead of coach driven. I think those things helped us,” he said.
“I also think our failures have helped us. Our failure at 6-5 has helped our team get to this point. If things would have been easy and flowing, I don’t know if we would have had the sense of urgency that is necessary to win at a high level at Division II.”
Because Grand Valley started this season with such a young group, there were a few bumps. The Lakers start just one senior on defense and only three seniors see significant playing time on offense. In addition, the Lakers were breaking in a new quarterback.
All those factors played a role in the Lakers losing 61-24 in the third week of the season to Ferris State. Grand Valley’s other loss came at Ashland on Oct. 31.
“We had some things that got away from us,” Mitchell said of the loss to Ferris State. “As a young team, I left the offense in and kept throwing the football. We threw a pick-six and made some mistakes. I took our defense off the field and it got out of control. They did beat us. I’m not going to run away from it. But I knew we were going to continue to improve and get better.
“One of my biggest things around here is progress over protection. We kept making progress and the guys stuck to the mission.”
The Lakers beat Ashland 45-28 in the first round and then won a 38-34 thriller at Ferris State in the second round.
The road trip to Colorado State-Pueblo was fun for the players as will this one to Shepherd because the team gets to fly a charter flight. It is why Mitchell dismisses these types of road playoff games as obstacles.
“How we get treated by the NCAA in championships and how our athletic department supports us, it is almost better being on the road than being at home,” Mitchell said. “Our guys are excited to get on charter flights. We are not used to that.
“If you take this weekend game, we are going to drive to the airport for about a half hour, a little over an hour flight and then we will bus into town. Our total travel time is three hours. We are used to bus trips to Upper Peninsula that our 10 hour trips.”
The Lakers are ready for the next step in their journey to get as far as they can possibly go in the 2015 season.
“I am proud of them, especially, given the fact we were coming off a 6-5 season,” Mitchell said. “We had a bad year last year. For us to go from six wins to 12 wins, I am proud of our assistant coaches and our kids. We really have grown as a team during the course of the season.”
Series history: First-ever meeting
Total offense: Grand Valley, 461.6.4; Shepherd, 420.8
Total defense: Grand Valley, 392.1; Shepherd, 289.9
Points scored: Grand Valley, 38.9; Shepherd, 40.3
Points allowed: Grand Valley, 26.3; Shepherd, 16.5
Semifinals meaningful for Northwest Missouri State
For the second time in three seasons, Northwest Missouri State junior defensive back Kevin Berg is playing in the NCAA Division II semifinals. In 2013, Northwest went on to win the national title.
Berg understands just how hard it is to reach the title game. When Northwest, 13-0, takes on West Georgia, 12-1, at 2:30 p.m. CT Saturday at Bearcat Stadium in Maryville, Mo., Berg knows the Bearcats will have a battle on their hands.
“We are playing a great team with a lot of athleticism,” Berg said. “I am very excited. I never had a chance to play a team from the Gulf South Conference. It is going to be awesome because we recognize they are very athletic and they can do a lot of things.”
The game figures to be a defensive battle between the top two defensive teams in Division II. Northwest ranks No. 1 in the country in scoring defense, allowing 11.9 points per game. West Georgia is second, surrendering 14.6 points.
Both teams also rank first and second in total defense. Northwest has given up 220.8 yards per game and West Georgia, 238.1 per game.
“We realize we have a huge challenge ahead of us,” Berg said.
Making it to the semifinals is a nice accomplishment for any Division II football team. One more win puts the team in the championship game. In addition, the semifinals are televised on ESPN3.
“Going into a new year, you always have those goals of winning conference, making it to the playoffs and you want to get on TV,” Berg said. “It is a great time. You get to play with all your teammates in front of a national televised audience. Your buddies around the country get to watch you. It is a really fun game.
“There is the pressure you lose, you go home. But there is also that excitement. Not a lot of teams get to play in the semifinals. Being able to be part of two teams to do it is a huge opportunity. We are excited to go out and play our best.”
Series history: First-ever meeting
Total offense: West Georgia, 424.5; Northwest, 441.8
Total defense: West Georgia, 238.1; Northwest, 220.8
Points scored: West Georgia, 37.8; Northwest, 42.2
Points allowed: West Georgia, 14.6; Northwest, 11.9