GAC Playoff Preview - First Round

November 16th, 2023 7:00am

GAC Playoff Preview - First Round

The NCAA Division II playoffs begin this weekend and the GAC is represented by not one, but two schools this year. Harding is the No. 1 seed in Super Region Three and Henderson State also received an at-large bid. 

Since the Bisons have a first round bye this weekend, we’ll take a look at the Reddies’ first round matchup with No. 4 seed Central Missouri. The Bisons will take on the winner of this matchup next week.


Getting to Know The Mules

The Mules are arguably the best offense in Division II. UCM rolled up nearly 600 yards per game in the regular season, including 412 per game through the air. Quarterback Zach Zebrowski has through for over 4,200 yards and is a strong candidate for the Harlon Hill Trophy, the DII version of the Heisman Trophy. 

Zebrowski has quite the stable of receivers to throw to as well. Eight different receivers have at least 20 receptions this season, led by Arkell Smith, who has 85 receptions for 1,226 yards and 14 touchdowns. 

The Mules aren’t just about the air, though. Running back Marcellous Hawkins rushed for 1,026 yards and 17 TDs to lead a rushing attack that averaged 186 yards per game. The complementary nature of the Mules’ offense is perhaps the most impressive part about this group. 

Defensively, UCM is good, not outstanding. They’ve given up 27.3 points per game and 360 total yards per game on 5.2 yards per play. However, the Mules are allowing just 122 yards on the ground and 3.7 yards per carry. The offense may get a lot of the attention, but the defense is more than capable of holding opponents down. UCM forces five punts per game and holds opponents to 34 percent on third down conversions. The Mules have also intercepted 18 passes this year, tied for sixth nationally. 


Ties with Henderson State

-Former Henderson State chancellor Chuck Ambrose, who resigned earlier this year, was also president at UCM from 2010-2018.

-Henderson State athletic director Shawn Jones worked at Central Missouri for 13 years before becoming athletic director at Henderson State. 

-Current UCM assistant head coach Haden Hawk worked on staff at Henderson State as the Reddies’ offensive coordinator from 2018-2022. 


How the Reddies Match Up: Defense vs. UCM Offense

This is going to be an enormously tough task for the Henderson State defense. The Reddies have faced some quality offenses in the GAC this season, but with all respect to those, none of them have the firepower the Mules possess. However, the HSU defense has been quite good this year and should be able to slow the Mules down a bit. To what degree remains to be seen.

The biggest feather in the cap for the Reddies is the negative plays they’ve forced this season. Henderson State ranks third nationally with 40 sacks this season and was really consistent in that. Yes, they had nine against Arkansas-Monticello, but they also had at least two sacks in nine of the 11 games this year. They also had 73 tackles for loss this year, one of the best numbers in the GAC. Negative plays will be huge for the Reddies.

Henderson State finished the regular season second in the GAC in the following categories: scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense and yards per play allowed. They were also fourth in passing defense, allowing 175 yards per game. Obviously, the GAC does not possess the passing offenses the MIAA does, so this will challenge a secondary that was really bad last year, but improved significantly in 2023. An influx of talent through the transfer portal and growth in experience from the young players of last year were the primary reasons for that improvement. 

But there’s still plenty of challenges this Mules’ offense presents for the Reddies, most notably how fast Zebrowski gets the ball out of his hands. That could nullify the Reddies’ pass rush and force the secondary to be close to perfect. That’s the nightmare scenario for Henderson State.


How the Reddies match up: Offense vs. UCM Defense

On the flip side, Henderson State has a pretty good quarterback of their own in sophomore Andrew Edwards. Edwards has turned the ball over just three times this year while throwing for 2,760 yards and 27 touchdowns. He also rushed for 10 touchdowns and 425 yards, carrying at least 10 times in five games this year. He’s been outstanding all year, but took it to another level after the Reddies’ 35-34 loss to Southern Arkansas back on Oct. 14. 

The receiving corps, quite the question in the early part of the season, has proven to be good once again. Chris Hatzis stepped in to be a great No. 1 option along with Timieone Jackson and the two combined for 105 receptions in the regular season. They’ll have opportunities to make plays against the Mules, who give up 217 yards per game through the air, albeit against a league that does throw the ball a lot more than the GAC. Of the 11 teams in the MIAA, nine of them average at least 200 yards passing, whereas the GAC has just five. Rushing offense is the opposite, as four GAC teams average at least 200 yards rushing this year, with six eclipsing that mark last year. In 2023, one MIAA team averaged 200 yards per game on the ground. 

All that to say, the Mules’ pass defense is probably better than the numbers indicate passed on the amount of passing offenses the Mules face. 

The Reddies have been up and down running the ball this year, rushing for over 200 four times but also rushing for under 150 four times. Much of that has to do with injuries along the offensive line this year and how that unit had to be cobbled together at times. One thing’s for sure: the Reddies have to be effective on the ground to have a chance. Without the ground threat, a one-dimensional HSU offense would be a sitting duck.



One could look at the Mules and think early-2000s Texas Tech with how they throw the ball all over the field. The problem is, UCM is a lot more than just a bunch of yards and points. They’re not a top-10 team in the country for nothing. This is a really tough game for Henderson, but the path to victory is pretty clear: they have to slow things down and control the clock. I think the only way the Reddies can pull the upset is if they are able to do what they did last week against Ouachita Baptist, which they held the ball for nearly 40 minutes. Keeping the ball out of the Mules’ hands (hooves?) and keeping Zebrowski on the sidelines will be the key. Even if that goes perfectly, it will still be tough to come out with a win. 

Henderson did a great job getting to the playoffs this year and the future is bright with Edwards at QB. However, the Reddies won’t get that rematch with Harding in the second round.

Central Missouri 42, Henderson State 21