December 1st, 2022 5:00pm
Harlon Hill Trophy
On Thursday morning, the finalists for the Harlon Hill Trophy were announced. Two candidates from each region advance in this round of voting, though SR3 has three names on the ballot. The voting will now switch from regional to one round of national voting. The winner of the award will be announced on Friday, December 16. The finalists by super region are:
Super Region One
Tyson Bagent, QB, Shepherd
Jared Bowie, WR, Concord
Super Region Two
Mario Anderson, RB, Newberry
Jada Byers, RB, Virginia Union
Super Region Three
Caleb Murphy, DE, Ferris State
TJ Davis, QB, Nebraska-Kearney
TJ Cole, RB, Ouachita Baptist
Super Region Four
Brandon Alt, QB, Bemidji State
John Matocha, QB, Colorado Mines
I have watched all nine of these players multiple times this season. All are very deserving of being finalists. The four players I have been considering as the front runners are on this list and I think the winner will come from that group. I am not a Harlon Hill voter, but if I was, this is what my ballot would look like (ballots ask voters for their top four)
I wish I had the time to give thorough written analysis all of these players because each deserves that. But I will explain why Matocha is my top choice. First, the raw numbers easily support it. On the national stat sheets he is second in total passing yards (4059) and third in passing yards per game (312.23). He is first in passing touchdowns with 41, compared to just six interceptions. That contributes to him leading the country in passing efficiency. He completes 69.5% of his passes and also grossed 459 yards on the ground (though sacks reduce his total to a net of 342.)
Beyond all those impressive measurables, Matocha brings a ton of intangibles to the table. He is very calm and controlled but also plays with an extremely high level of energy and emotion. His leadership had a lot to do with the Orediggers’ ability to rebound from an 0-2 start and reel off 11 straight wins. For a perfect snapshot of John Matocha as a player, go back to week one at Grand Valley State. Trailing GVSU by two points midway through the fourth quarter, Mines was backed up to their own 1 yard line with 99 yards in front of them. On first down, Matocha dropped several yards deep into his own end zone. Remember the scene here. This is week one, opening night in front of the largest and most hostile home crowd in Division II. In the student section end zone. This is literally and unquestionably the single most difficult situation a team could face anywhere in D2. Standing in the pocket with the whole GVSU student section screaming directly behind him and directly AT him, Matocha fired a strike to Josh Johnston for 21 yards. It was the start of a 99-yard drive that gave Mines the lead late in the game. That’s just one play and one series, but it represents his fearless style of play. His season was full of sensational plays and outstanding leadership. There are nine deserving players on the finalist list, but this year, John Matocha would get my vote.
As a few additional notes, I am happy to see a defensive player among the finalists. Caleb Murphy is the best defensive player in the country and if a defender is going to win it, he could be the guy. Brandon Alt, TJ Davis and Tyson Bagent are finalists for the second year in a row. Bagent was the 2021 Harlon Hill winner. Jada Byers is an easy choice for finalist in SR2 after leading D2 in rushing for nearly the entire season. Mario Anderson earned a lot of votes with his late season performances. Receivers generally don’t fare well in the final voting but Jared Bowie deserves to be here. He led the nation in total receptions, receptions per game, total receiving yards and receiving yards per game.
Onto the regional finals
Ferris State (11-1) at Grand Valley State (12-0)
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Weather forecast: Cloudy and windy, high of 32
Setting the scene: All four games this weekend feature very enticing matchups, but this one has more of my attention than the others. This game has everything you want. The programs are natural rivals. Ferris State wants to avenge the regular season loss, which ended their long GLIAC and regular season winning streaks. Grand Valley wants to reassert themselves as the dominant program in this part of the country. The winner will still have a hard road ahead so I can’t yet assume either team will be in the finals. But I do believe the winner of this game is likely to be the national champion in two weeks. The stakes are as high as they have ever been for the playoff round of this rivalry.
How they got here: Grand Valley State won the GLIAC for the first time since 2016 and completed a perfect regular season. Highlights included victories over fellow playoff teams Colorado Mines, CSU-Pueblo, Ferris State and Davenport. They knocked out their old playoff nemesis Northwest Missouri State a week ago. Ferris State failed to win the GLIAC for the first time since 2018, but completed a 9-1 season against one of the strongest schedules in D2. The Bulldogs beat Davenport for the second time this year in round one and eliminated the 12-0 MIAA Champs, Pittsburg State, in round two.
My thoughts: Ferris State and Grand Valley State had very similar games last week. Both become entrenched in defensive battles with the best the MIAA has to offer and prevailed with narrow victories. The experience will serve them well because I think this week’s game will be the same. Both teams have the defense to match up with the opposing offense. The Bulldogs have the speed and athleticism to slow down Grand Valley’s perimeter rushing, not to mention the pass rush to force early throws from Cade Peterson. The Lakers have the defensive front the put pressure on Mylik Mitchell and stuff the QB run game of Carson Gulker. I think there is potential for this to be a throwback for more than a half, with little offense and a lot of playing for field position. I do believe that over the course of the entire game, Grand Valley can outlast the Bulldogs. The Lakers offensive line is among the best in the nation and while I don’t think they can wear Ferris down, I think they can create just enough opportunities for the Lakers’ playmakers. Something I will be watching very closely is one-on-one battles when Ferris State’s Caleb Murphy is matched up with Grand Valley’s Quinton Barrow. Both players are finalists for the Gene Upshaw award which is presented to the top lineman in Division II (offensive or defensive). In last week’s game, Murphy set a new NCAA all-divisions single season sack record with 24.5. When they met in October, Barrow fared very well against the Harlon Hill finalists. It will be interesting to see how Ferris moves Murphy around to look for the most favorable matchups. The playoff bonus edition of the Anchor-Bone Classic might just be the best game of the postseason and I can’t wait to see it.
My pick: Grand Valley State
Colorado Mines (11-2) at Angelo State (12-0)
Weather forecast: Mostly sunny, high of 55
Setting the scene: Angelo State and Colorado Mines are members of different conferences but they are becoming quite familiar with each other. This will be their third meeting within the past 12 months. They met in this same game exactly one year ago in Golden, Colorado. Mines won that meeting by a final of 34-26. The Orediggers led by as much as 17 points late in the fourth quarter. In week two of this season, Angelo State returned to Colorado and this time left with a 30-27 OT victory. Now they will meet in San Angelo, Texas for the first time but once again, with a trip to the semifinals on the line.
How they got here: Angelo State is one of two unbeaten teams left standing. The perfect regular season included the week two victory at Mines in out of conference action. The Rams locked up the LSC championship by week 10 and earned the first round bye in the playoffs. They opened the postseason with a win over Bemidji State last week. Colorado Mines has had the most interesting path the playoffs. Opening with the most difficult two game stretch in D2, the Orediggers started 0-2 following losses to Grand Valley State and Angelo State. They’ve won 11 straight since then, including home playoff wins over CSU-Pueblo and Minnesota State.
My thoughts: Ferris State at Grand Valley State is the premier game in the regional finals round but this is the one I am most excited to watch. I can see all four of the games this week going either way, but this is the one I am having the most trouble picking. Both teams are hard to beat because they are fundamentally sound and have few weaknesses. Angelo State’s defense might be the best in the country. The Rams lead the nation in total defense, allowing just 214 yards per game, rank fourth in scoring defense, with just 11.33 per game and third in 3rd down defense. You really need to look no further than the week two meeting of these programs to see how good that defense is. The Rams limited Mines to only 273 total yards that day and held one of the nation’s leading passers, John Matocha to a season-low 167 yards. That, to me, is the most critical factor in this game. If Angelo State can play pass defense like they have all year, they win. But I can’t assume they will do it as well as they did in week two. That was a long time ago. Mines has been rolling with Matocha averaging 310 yards per game. The Orediggers have three receivers with more than 50 grabs and two (Max McLeod and Josh Johnston) that have over 1,000 receiving yards for the season. That’s a lot to handle but Angelo State’s 23 interceptions makes me think they’re up for it. Andrew Pitts (7) and DeShaun Douglas (5) are both among the national leaders in picks. The concern for Angelo State would be if Mines’ offense finds success, can the Rams counter? The Mines defense is really good at stopping the run, which is what Angelo likes to do. If they can slow down Nate Omayebu and Kason Phillips, it might force the Rams to throw to win. But Zach Bronkhorst and the passing game proved last week against a good Bemidji State defense that they can deliver.
My pick: Angelo State
Shepherd (12-1) at IUP (10-1)
Weather forecast: Partly cloudy, chance of rain, temps falling into the 40s during game time
Setting the scene: Prior to Shepherd’s entry into the PSAC in 2019, the meetings of these two SR1 powers was exclusively via the Division II playoffs. During Shepherd’s membership in the WVIAC and later the MEC, the Rams and Crimson Hawks faced off in the playoffs in 1998, 2007, 2012 and 2015. Their first meeting as members of the same conference occurred in the 2019 playoffs. Four of those games went in favor of Shepherd. IUP’s only victory was in 2012. However, the Crimson Hawks did win the most recent meeting, which occurred only three weeks ago in the PSAC Championship game.
How they got here: The PSAC Championship win secured the number 1 seed for IUP in the SR1 bracket, with a regular season record of 9-1. The only loss occurred in week nine at Gannon. After being idle in round one, IUP defeated Great Midwest champs Ashland in round two. Shepherd made it to 10-0 before the loss in the final week of the regular season at IUP. They played at home in the first two rounds and eliminated New Haven and Slippery Rock.
My thoughts: Rematches like this one are very interesting. This isn’t like some of the other playoff rematches we’ve seen. For example, the quarterfinal matchup of Colorado Mines and Angelo State is a rematch of a game that occurred in week two. A lot has happened since then. But IUP and Shepherd last met on November 12. IUP has played one game since and Shepherd has played two. The teams that play on Saturday should be very similar to the ones that faced off just three weeks ago. But that doesn’t mean the game will play out the same. I think the scoring will be similar, with scoring in the low-to-mid 20s. I expect both defenses to be fine. They are both outstanding units and know how to defend each other well. Shepherd’s offense needs to be a lot better than it was three weeks ago and IUP’s offense needs a turnaround after last week’s performance. The offense went dormant after the first quarter and was shutout for the final 44:05. I’m having a hard time getting past that. IUP’s passing game trailed off badly after the first two drives and Ashland was able to start defending the run more aggressively. IUP is getting good production from RB Adam Houser, but they lack the 1-2 punch that was so punishing with Dayjure Stewart out of the lineup. Shepherd did not have a great day against IUP’s rush last time around, but think they’ll be able to follow Ashland’s blueprint. Pass pressure will be important as well. IUP’s passing game is coming off a rough outing. I can see this being more of a struggle for IUP this time around, but I still have a lot of confidence in their defense. Tyson Bagent passed for over 300 yards in the November meeting but also threw some bad balls including a pair of costly interceptions. This feels like a spot for Bagent to prove why he is the best overall player in Division II and put in a big-time performance. But in my opinion, Ronnie Brown is the X factor. If IUP can limit him like they did earlier this season and create pressure on Bagent, they’re going to win. If Shepherd can get some of chunk plays Brown has been earning on the ground in the postseason, it just opens up the pass even more.
My pick: Shepherd
Wingate (11-2) at West Florida (11-1)
Weather forecast: Mostly cloudy, chance of rain, high 71
Setting the scene: Wingate and West Florida have wracked up quite a few playoff appearances recently. West Florida made their postseason debut in 2017 and finished as national runner-up in just the second season of the program’s existence. The Argos returned to the postseason in 2019 (their national championship season), 2021 and now 2022. Wingate is in the playoffs for fifth time in program history and the fourth time in the past five seasons. This will be the third postseason meeting between the Bulldogs and Argos. They previously met in the first round of 2017 and 2019 playoffs, with both games at Wingate and both games resulting in lopsided wins for West Florida.
How they got here: Wingate finished the regular season at 9-2. Their head-to-head loss to Newberry eliminated them from the SAC championship but the overall resume was the best of the two-loss teams in Super Region two. The Bulldogs won two road playoff games at Virginia Union and Benedict to earn their place in the SR2 final. West Florida won a share of the GSC championship for the second year in a row, finishing the regular season at 9-1. The Argos beat Limestone at home in round one. In round two, they avenged their only regular season loss with a victory at Delta State.
My thoughts: I was at both prior playoff meetings of these teams in 2017 and 2019. I’ll be honest, I’m having a hard time getting those games out of my head and it is probably clouding my judgement. The reality is these teams matchup differently than they did a couple of years ago. Wingate isn’t deadly offensively but West Florida allows more points and total yards per game than any team left in the playoffs. They can be beaten and Wingate has a very experienced QB in Shaw Crocker. He’s been efficient in the postseason, and I think he can lead Wingate’s offense to some scores against the Argo D. The matchup we’re really look for is the Argo offense against the Wingate defense. UWF puts up 43.42 points per game but the Bulldogs surrender just 10.2. Wingate has limited opponents to 10 points or less in nine of 13 games. UWF is more talented offensively than any team Wingate has faced (by far) but the Bulldogs need to follow their formula. Stuff the run, and put pressure on the quarterback. Wingate has five first team All-Region players on defense, led by SR2 player of the year, DJ Horn. West Florida has one of the top receivers in the nation in David Durden but the passing game has been very inefficient in the postseason. Argo QB PeeWee Jarrett was 7-18 against Limestone and 9-23 at Delta State. Wingate has a pair of All-Region DBs to account for in Tre Morrison and Dequan Mosley. The Bulldogs are good at creating sacks and turnovers, so there is an opportunity for that to continue. In the end, I think West Florida will have the talent to prevail. I would expect a commitment to establishing the run with Shomari Mason, Ra’veion Hargrove and Jarrett. I think they will be able to do enough to get the win.
My pick: West Florida
There are also three D2 bowl games this weekend. Unfortunately they are taking place at the same time as our regional finals so they won't get much attention outside their immediate fan bases. I like Emporia State, Texas A&M-Kingsiville and Truman State as the winners in those contests but all should be very even matchups.
Be sure to catch Inside D2 Football Sunday night at 8pm for the full recap.
Questions, suggestions, comments, complaints? Email me at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter @D2Chuck.