This weekends televised match-ups for the D2 Football Playoffs feature one must-see-TV game and an intriguing match-up between two programs who have made it just a little further than expected this year. LiveBall Sports’ previews of the games are below.
Shepherd Rams vs. Delta State Statesmen
This game is not exactly a marquee matchup for the D-II football playoffs, in fact, any number of games from the prior two rounds have paired more dynamic teams. Delta State beat the highest seeded team in their region, the Albany State Rams, to reach this level. Shepherd beat a likely over-seeded Mercyhurst college by a resounding score of 49-14.
Delta State has been at this level once recently, losing to National Champion Grand Valley 49-30 on the road in 2006. They were also the national champions of this level in 2000, beating Bloomsburg of PA. It’s been a long road back for the Statesmen.
Shepherd can light up a scoreboard. Just this year, they’ve put up: 56, 55, 53, 49, 46, and 41 points. Two of those results have come in the D2 playoffs, and on the road no less. It took a lot longer for Delta State’s offense to get going, but a 47-24 decision over North Alabama counts as a quality victory. Shepherd has done it big on the road this year, but for a team from West Virginia, it’s a big difference going “on the road” to Pennsylvania to knock off teams ranked in the 10-20 range, which they’ve done the last two weeks, and going to southern Mississippi to play an established program in Delta State.
It seems that Delta State would be heavily underdogged had they drawn the short end of the travel stick, but seeding is a big determinant of success in the D2 Football playoffs, and it makes sense to pick Delta State to advance to the Championship Round.
Northwest Missouri State Bearcats vs. Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs
It’s kind of amazing what head coach Mel Tjeerdsma has done with the
Maryville Teacher’s College Northwest Missouri State Football Team. This is perhaps one of the greatest coaching pieces, ever. In any sport. Another 12-1 record, another appearance among the final four teams in Division II college football. With a win, the Bearcats will head to Florence, Alabama to play in the D2 title game for a sixth consecutive season. When he took over this program 17 years ago, they didn’t even win a game.
Their opponent, Minnesota-Duluth, was the number one seed in the entire nation coming into this playoff field, and they’ve done little to dispel the perception that they should be the favorite. This is the best team in the field. Against possibly the toughest non-GLIAC schedule in division II football, this team’s average margin of victory: 4 TDs. They may be ripe for the picking: their playoff results included a three point survival in overtime over St. Cloud State. Of course, they then went in and held an Augustana team to 13 points one week after they put up 38 points against Grand Valley.
Northwest Missouri has a couple of problems. Their average margin of victory is under two touchdowns in a conference they typically dominate. The culprit is their defense. Quarterback Blake Bolles (pictured above) is a legitimate pro prospect, and the best chance that Tjeerdsma’s team has of overcoming Minnesota-Duluth. However, Saturday’s win over Central Missouri at home was the first comfortable win for the Bearcats since the end of October. No one is better suited to win a close game than the Bearcats, but it’s difficult to expect Minnesota-Duluth not to win by a comfortable margin and head into the NCAA D2 Championship Game a heavy, heavy favorite.
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A rare inter-conference match-up between two of the top programs in NCAA Division II took place in west Michigan, when West Texas A&M and Grand Valley met Thursday night, putting a bunch of professional quality talent on a D-II field for perhaps the only time prior to the NCAA playoffs.
Two Senior quarterbacks led their teams, Kyle McMahon in his first start for the Lakers, and Taylor Harris for the Buffaloes. Both programs have produced quarterbacks who have reached the NFL level in the past, which includes Rams backup Keith Null (WTAMU), and Cullen Finnerty (GVSU) who had a cup of coffee in training camp with the Ravens and later the Broncos. This game was really not about the quarterbacks, although certainly, if West Texas A & M had been a bit less trusting of Harris to read a defense properly, the result could have been different.
The eighth ranked Buffaloes demonstrated a clear and decisive advantage in speed during this game. For the first time in the last six years, the Laker defense looked flat out slow. This caused an adjustment at halftime where the Lakers moved away from their preferred coverage schemes (cover 3, cover 1) to a more standard cover two in the second half. The linebackers for Grand Valley were a step behind in coverage most of the night, but I was impressed with the instincts of redshirt freshman Luther Ware in his first start at middle linebacker.
West Texas A&M took a 17-13 lead to halftime thanks to a mismatch they found with their receivers against Grand Valley’s secondary, which was cautious about getting beat deep, and was happy to give up a consistent diet of slants and short drags. This helped out Harris, who threw for more than 400 yards despite issues diagnosing coverage the entire game (4 INTs, lost fumble). Grand Valley led 10-0 in the first quarter, but fell on a cold stretch with an ineffective offense that went 11 possessions between touchdowns despite an average starting field position in Buffalo territory. Grand Valley simply could not compete with the depth of the receivers of West Texas A&M, and a very balanced game called by their coaching staff. Additionally, pass protection was an issue for the Lakers all day, and though McMahon did a better job diagnosing coverage than Harris, the Lakers’ vertical passing game was non-existent going into the fourth quarter.
Even though the Lakers made adjustments at halftime, the dominance of the West Texas A&M’s offensive unit was present into the second half, and really throughout the game. Grand Valley was saved from it’s first home regular season loss in six years exclusively by the turnovers it was able to create. But in the fourth quarter, the Laker offense started to generate the big plays that were there for the taking all night. Jovonne Augustus took a badly underthrown (and ill-advised) deep ball from McMahon, and turned a potential interception into a 70 yard touchdown catch to turn the game around. Following a short punt, GVSU took the lead on a double seam concept off of counter-run action when they busted West Texas A&M’s coverage, finding a wide open Greg Gay for a touchdown catch that was much harder (and far more painful) than it needed to be.
Despite a clear speed advantage for the Buffaloes, the Lakers did appear to be the better of the two teams on the field for most of the game. The NFL prospect to watch here is Tyson Williams, a junior receiver from West Texas A&M. Williams is a powerful runner, a very good blocker, and his value to NFL teams will be determined by how well he runs in the predraft process. His speed did not stand out on Thursday night, but his physicality is really impressive. Harris throws the deep ball well, but has a tendency to give up or not even look at outside receivers. McMahon has room to improve in the Laker offense, but while the playcalling wasn’t great, McMahon also moves sometimes away from pressure, taking away the ability for his guys to make plays downfield. Three of the best players on the Laker offense are RB/WR Justin Sherrod, and WRs Greg Gay and Ryan Bass.
But on this day, the focal point of Grand Valley’s attack was a grind it out style using the physicality of McMahon and Akron transfer RB Norman Shuford, who aren’t among the best players on the offense. If Grand Valley spends three quarters in every game not looking to generate big plays, it’s going to be a tough season for the offense. The fact that the biggest play of the game happened almost by accident isn’t a good sign. But McMahon has a loaded roster full of talent at his hands, so if he can improve as a passer, there is absolutely no reason that the Lakers offense won’t improve right along with him, and once that happens, it’s hard to not see Grand Valley State deep into the NCAA Div-II playoffs once again.