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Ferris State flipped the script on Grand Valley last Saturday and as a result the Bulldogs find themselves in the D2 semifinals for the first time in 21 years.

Last season GVSU upset an unbeaten FSU 38-34 in the second round, ending the career of two-time Harlon Hill winner Jason Vander Laan. This season it was the Bulldogs avenging a regular season loss by upsetting the unbeaten Lakers 47-32.

In FSU*s last appearance in the semifinals in 1995, they ran into a buzz saw against North Alabama, losing 45-7. Of course that UNA team was in the final leg of a three-peat and is remembered as one of the all-time great D2 teams. Unfortunately for FSU, they will face a similar task in taking on Northwest Missouri, a team on a 28 game winning streak and vying for a second consecutive national championship.

The other semifinal will feature North Alabama traveling to Shepherd. Over the last seven weeks the Lions (10-1) have been just as dominant as Northwest Missouri, outscoring opponents by a 318 to 67 margin, including a 38-0 beating of North Greenville last week. The Lions are coached by Bobby Wallace, who was also the architect of the UNA three-peat from 1993-95. Wallace is trying to get the Lions back to the championship game for the first time in 21 years.

Shepherd, of course, was in the national championship game last year and the Rams are now 14-0 after knocking off unbeaten teams LIU-Post and California in consecutive weeks. Both of those wins came on the road. It should be a very entertaining Saturday of football watching these four teams play.

Harlon Hill Finalists

Nine Harlon Hill finalists were announced last week. My thoughts on each along with my feelings on who should win the award:

Garry Brown SR WR California

Key Stats: 2219 all-purpose yards and 26 total touchdowns, 91 receptions 1475 yards

Pros: Brown was incredible all season. I think he and Shepherd*s Billy Brown were the top two receivers in the country but Garry has the added element of being an excellent return man on his resume.

Cons: Only one wide receiver- Pittsburg State*s Ronnie West in 1991- has won the award. It is very difficult for a receiver to win it.

Jeff Ziemba SR QB Shepherd

Key Stats: 3515 passing yards, 31 touchdowns, 175 pass efficiency rating

Pros: Ziemba is a known commodity as he was a finalist last year and led Shepherd to the national championship game. He is a very good passer as the 175 pass efficiency rating can attest.

Cons: I would make the case that Ziemba is not the best offensive player on his own team as that honor belongs to wide receiver Billy Brown. Ziemba was also suspended for a game this season which is not a good look.

Jacob Tucker SR QB North Alabama

Key Stats: 789 rushing yards, 15 touchdowns, 2483 passing yards, 20 touchdowns

Pros: Tucker was the GSC Offensive Player of the Year and had a nice season both throwing and running the football.

Cons: He has only been the starter at UNA for one year, so the name recognition is not there like it is for some of the others. Tucker also threw 10 interceptions in just 274 pass attempts, which is a high number.

Raleigh Yeldell SR QB Newberry

Key Stats: 3087 passing yards, 33 total touchdowns (27 passing)

Pros: Yeldell was the SAC Offensive Player of the Year and had a nice senior season, averaging over 300 passing yards per game.

Cons: He was suspended for both the regular season finale and opening round playoff loss so he was not there for his team when needed the most. Other quarterbacks on this list have more impressive numbers.

Trey Heid SR QB Augustana

Key Stats: 3582 passing yards, 721 rushing yards, 51 total touchdowns (41 passing)

Pros: Heid had an incredible senior season, capping a career in which he accounted for 13,235 yards of offense and 128 touchdowns. He led the nation in total offense per game.

Cons: Despite the gaudy statistics, he only reached the playoffs once in his career.

Kyle Zimmerman SR QB Northwest Missouri State

Key Stats: 3582 passing yards, 43 total touchdowns (36 passing)

Pros: Zimmerman is the quarterback of the top-ranked team in the nation and he threw just three interceptions all season.

Cons: It could be argued that Zimmerman is a product of the great team around him.

Marty Carter SO RB Grand Valley State

Key Stats: 256 carries, 1908 yards, 20 touchdowns

Pros: Carter was the nation*s leading rusher and had a great season, averaging about 7.5 yards per carry.

Cons: As the only underclassman on this list, the voters might feel that Carter*s time has not come yet. No player younger than a junior has won the award since 1987.

Justin Dvorak SR QB Ferris State

Key Stats: 4584 passing yards, 61 total touchdowns (53 passing)

Pros: Dvorak led the nation in passing yards per game (352.6), passing touchdowns and total points responsible for (366). For his career he accounted for 159 touchdowns.

Cons: You could argue that Dvorak was a "system quarterback" that benefited from his team*s offensive style and lack of competition at times.

Austin Ekeler SR RB Western State

Key Stats: 1495 rushing yards, 15 touchdowns

Pros: Ekeler might be the most talented back in D2 and had an outstanding career.

Cons: He was limited some by the lack of talent around him and missed the last game and a half this season with an injury, hurting the overall numbers.

Bob*s Pick: Unlike the last couple of years with Jason Vander Laan, no one candidate is an absolute clear cut favorite. Eliminate Ekeler, Tucker and Yeldell from this list and I would be fine with any of the other six winning it. I realize that some of the arguments against Dvorak that I previously pointed out may have some validity, but 61 touchdowns is 61 touchdowns. If I had a vote, it would go to Justin Dvorak.

National Semifinals

North Alabama (10-1) at Shepherd (13-0)
12:00 Eastern on ESPN3

As I mentioned earlier, the Lions have been dominating over the last two months. They are led by senior quarterback Jacob Tucker, the Gulf South offensive player of the year. Tucker has thrown for 2483 yards and 20 touchdowns and rushed for 789 yards and 15 more touchdowns. Obviously, he is a dual threat and the key component to what the Lions are trying to do offensively. His top target is junior receiver Dre Hall, who has caught 68 balls for 1020 yards and eight touchdowns. He has at least one touchdown reception in each of the last six games.

The key player defensively for the Lions is senior cornerback Philbert Martial. The four year starter and three time All-GSC selection has intercepted six passes this year. Not only does he blanket receivers, but he is among the top return men in the country as well. Another standout cornerback- senior Levi Fell- was lost to a knee injury in the regular season finale. It has not affected the Lions so far in the postseason, but I am sure Coach Wallace would love to have him on the field against Shepherd*s potent passing game.

The Lions allowed just 13 points per game this season and they did it by forcing 33 turnovers and allowing just ten touchdowns on 28 opponent trips inside the red zone. The Lions have just 20 sacks this season, so they are not a high pressure defense. They prefer to play coverage and rely on their superior athleticism in the back half of the defense to force turnovers and make stops, especially in the red zone.

The key to Shepherd*s game is the passing attack, led by senior quarterback Jeff Ziemba and senior wide receiver Billy Brown. In the first three rounds of the playoffs alone, the duo has hooked up 32 times for and incredible 554 yards and eight touchdowns. For the season Ziemba- a Harlon Hill finalist- has thrown for 3515 yards and 31 touchdowns to go along with a 175 passer rating. Brown has 97 receptions for 1563 yards and 22 touchdowns. To make matters worse for opposing defenses, receiver CJ Brown also has 1192 yards so it is difficult for opposing defenses to give too much attention to Brown.

The Rams did not run the football particularly well this season, but freshman running back Brandon Hlavach has had his best two games of the season in the last two rounds of the playoffs. It certainly appears as if everything is coming together offensively for the Rams in these playoffs.

The game plan for the Shepherd defense is simple: the Rams like to stop the running game and then get after the quarterback. Shepherd has 52 sacks this season and allows 87 yards per game on the ground. However, teams that have had success protecting the quarterback have shown the ability to have success against the Rams, mainly because Shepherd has just seven interceptions in 484 opponent pass attempts. The key players for Shepherd defensively are linebackers Octavius Thomas and James Gupton. Both are undersized but very active linebackers that have combined for 192 tackles this season.

Prediction: This one is tough. I think the Lions have a big advantage in overall athleticism, but the Rams* passing game is so good I think they will give UNA problems anyway. I expect Shepherd to try to disrupt Tucker and the UNA running game as much as possible early in the game to force the Lions to go to the air. At the end of the day I expect the Lions to win because of the edge in talent and potent special teams, but I could also see the Rams winning in a shootout. North Alabama 31 Shepherd 26

Ferris State (12-2) at Northwest Missouri State (13-0)
3:30 Eastern on ESPN3

For the second straight week the Bearcats will be facing a team that likes option football, but the FSU offense is a completely different animal than what Harding runs. The Bulldogs run a spread option based out of the shotgun. The quarterback is the primary ball carrier in this system, but the goal of this offense is to stretch the defense both horizontally and vertically. FSU does this very well.

The Bulldogs have had a very unique situation at quarterback the last few weeks. Junior D-I transfer Reggie Bell started the first ten games of the season, but due to reasons that are still unclear, senior Trevor Bermingham started the final regular season game against Saginaw Valley State and played the bulk of the first two playoff games. Bell returned to start against Grand Valley, but again gave way to Bermingham, who had another tremendous game against the Lakers. Over the last four weeks Bermingham has 16 rushing touchdowns. In a nutshell, Bell is more athletic and dynamic, but Bermingham is a much better passer and does a better job taking care of the football.

Defensively the Bulldogs like to stop the run and get after the quarterback. FSU gives up right around 100 yards per game on the ground and has 41 sacks and 20 interceptions. The key player is sophomore defensive end Zach Sieler, the GLIAC defensive lineman of the year. At 6-6" 275 pounds and blessed with speed and quickness, Sieler is a nightmare for opposing offenses. He had 3.5 sacks against Grand Valley last week and has racked up 73 tackles, 18.5 sacks, 27.5 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles this season. This is a guy that you will eventually see playing on Sundays and Northwest must account for him at all times.

The Bearcats are led offensively by senior quarterback Kyle Zimmerman, who is a Harlon Hill finalist. He has thrown for 3582 yards and 36 touchdowns while throwing just three interceptions. The Northwest offense spreads the ball around to several different players making it hard to key on any one. Nine receivers have caught at least 19 passes each and three different running backs have seen significant carries. However, the Bearcats did lose standout receiver Shawn Bane to a season ending injury in the 10th game of the season and since then Northwest has had to grind a bit more for points. They have kicked 11 field goals over the last three weeks which tells me that they are struggling a bit in the red zone.

On the defensive side of the football Northwest is simply outstanding. Seniors Collin Bevins (DE), Jacob Vollstedt (LB) and Kevin Berg (S) are all returning All-Americans that have had great senior seasons. They allow just 68 rushing yards and 241 yards of total offense per game. They have size, strength and speed in the front seven and pair of outstanding safeties in Berg and fellow senior Jack Young.

Prediction: Ferris State is a good football team, especially on the offensive side of the ball. They will be the best offense the Bearcats have faced this season and I expect this match up to be the entire key to the game. If the Bulldogs can move the ball and avoid turnovers and negative plays, they have a chance to stay in the game because Northwest just is not as explosive offensively without Bane. I do think FSU will hang around for a while, but at the end of the day this Bearcat team is having a special season and is just too good defensively to lose a semifinal game at home. Northwest Missouri 37 Ferris State 18


Mailbag

[Q] It*s been a special season for Northwest Missouri, and reminds me of the *95 Nebraska Huskers team who*s closest margin was a 14 point win over Washington State and finished a National Championship Season with an average margin of victory of 38 points. The Bearcat*s closest margin going into the Harding game has been a 21 point victory over Fort Hays State. Hypothetically, how competitive do you do you feel this Northwest team would be this season if they played in the FCS?

[A] I think this Northwest team would at least be in the playoffs and would probably be a top eight type team in FCS. The defense could hold its own with any FCS program in the country. I think the offense would be decent but probably lacks the playmakers that you would see on the top FCS teams.

Contact

Feel free to contact me at with any comments or criticisms or if you have a question you would like answered in the Mailbag.

 

 
         
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