GAC Postseason Preview: National Championship

December 14th, 2023 11:30am

GAC Postseason Preview: National Championship

It’s Championship Weekend and for the first time, a school from the Great American Conference is playing for the right to hoist a national championship trophy. 

Saturday, the Harding Bisons take on Colorado School of Mines at McKinney ISD Stadium in McKinney, Texas. Both schools are playing for their first national championship after rolling through the regular season and playoffs unscathed. Two 14-0 teams, teams that have been among the best in the nation since August. The No. 2 and No. 3 scoring offenses and scoring defenses. You can’t ask for anything better than this. 

The Bisons have been outstanding all season long and enter the championship game with one of the best defenses in the nation, as well as the most prolific rushing attack in Division II history. 

Ironically, Lenoir-Rhyne—the Bisons’ opponent last week—was the previous record holder in total rushing yards in a season. With last Saturday’s 431-yard performance, the Bisons have now rushed for 5,659 yards on an astonishing 6.8 yards per carry. 

Standing in the way of Harding’s first football national championship are the Orediggers (sensational nickname, by the way) of Colorado School of Mines. As we get ready for what should be a sensational title game, let’s get to know the Bisons’ opponent. 


Scouting the Orediggers

Mines is led by their quarterback, 2022 Harlon Hill Award winner John Matocha. The senior has thrown for 4,028 yards this year with 42 touchdowns and just six interceptions. Overall, Mines averages over 500 yards of offense and 49 points per game while racking up 7.5 yards per play. It’s a balanced offense, putting up 214 yards per game on the ground and 306 per game through the air. 

While Matocha is the engine that makes this offense go, he is not alone in the playmaker category on this roster. The rushing attack has a pair of solid backs in Noah Roper (951 rushing yards, 16 touchdowns) and Landon Walker (734 yards, 12 touchdowns). Matocha is a threat to run as well, carrying for 444 yards and five touchdowns this season. 

On the outside, the primary receivers are Max McLeod (101 receptions, 1,503 yards, 16 touchdowns) and Flynn Schiele (65 receptions, 955 yards, 10 touchdowns). Both are big targets, with McLeod standing 6-foot-3 and Schiele standing 6-foot-4. However, 10 different players have caught a touchdown this year for the Orediggers. The Harding secondary would probably be considered the low point of the Bisons defense—which isn’t saying much—so they’ll have to be extra prepared for what Mines and Matocha will throw (literally) at them.

The offensive line is solid, but has allowed 26 sacks this season, including nine in three playoff games. If you factor in the two non-conference games against Grand Valley State and Angelo State, both of which were top-10 teams at the time, Mines has given up 14 sacks against the top competition they’ve faced this year. The Bisons have 36 sacks this year and have 15 in their last four games. 

Defensively, the profile for the Orediggers looks very similar to Lenoir-Rhyne’s from a week ago. Mines gives up just 64 yards per game on the ground on 2.4 yards per carry. The rushing defense has been consistent all year, holding five opponents to less than 10 total yards on the ground, all of which came on at least 19 carries. Through the air, it’s an average of 183 yards per game for a total of 247 yards per game and 4.1 yards per play. Mines has racked up 46 sacks this year and also forced 33 turnovers, which is the best mark in the nation. The Orediggers also only allow opponents to convert on 25.5 percent of their third down attempts. 

Individually, Mines is led by a pair of linebackers, Jaden Healy (63 tackles, 10.5 TFL, seven sacks) and Nolan Reeve (59 tackles, 13.5 TFL, 10 sacks). That the Orediggers don’t have a player with more than 63 tackles this season speaks to the complete nature of the team and the stout play of the defense in particular. All together, the Orediggers defense saw 128 fewer plays than their offensive counterparts. For comparison, Harding’s defense saw 138 fewer plays than the offense. Cornerback Jackson Zimmermann leads the secondary with six interceptions and nine pass break ups. Jack Peterson is the leading tackler along the defensive line with 27 along with 7.5 TFL and four sacks. 


I don’t pretend to have a firm grasp on the quality of every team in D2 football. I do know some conferences are better than others and some regions are tougher than others. Both Harding and Mines have faced and beaten tough teams and they’ve also faced and beaten some rum-dums where the starters were out of the game by halftime. 

It’s very difficult to get an accurate picture of how good a team is based on statistics alone at this level. I think we can all agree with that. It’s easier to prognosticate about a matchup at the FBS level because those games are all so much more easily accessible to digest and dissect. At this level, it's kinds of like throwing darts when you’re looking at teams across conferences. 

Here’s what I do know about these teams and this matchup. Both teams are really good on both sides of the ball and I think we’re in for a treat of a title game. The two big questions in my mind for this one:

  1. Is the Harding secondary ready to deal with arguably the best quarterback in all of D2?
  2. Is the Mines defense tough enough to hold up for 60 minutes against the best rushing attack in D2 history?

There are a lot of bests in this game and that’s what a title game should be about. The best players, the best units, the best teams, going head-to-head to determine a champion. I think we have that this week and Saturday should be awesome.


Frankly, I think Harding is built different. They won Super Region Three against two wildly different teams in two completely different ways while still sticking to what they do: pound the rock and pound the opposition. We saw the competitive difference between Harding and Lenoir-Rhyne last week. Mines is a different animal, though. However, the thing I can’t shake is the number of sacks given up in the biggest games for the Orediggers. I think Harding will be able to do what they do on offense and will limit Matocha and the offense enough to capture their first national championship.

Harding 31, Colorado School of Mines 21