Allendale, Mich. — The Grand Valley-Ferris State rivalry has become the best in Division II football the past few years. Bart Williams is very familiar with the intense series while Jayru Campbell will be getting his first taste of it.
The rivalry has hit its peak this fall with No. 2 Grand Valley playing host to No. 3 Ferris State Saturday night in a showdown for first place in the GLIAC at Lubbers Stadium.
Williams, who is in his sixth year at Grand Valley, shattered school records for passing yards (11,258) and touchdown passes (122) held by the late Cullen Finnerty (10,905, 110), who led the Lakers to multiple national championships while being inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame last month.
Williams has never been better than this season, throwing for 1,404 yards and 17 TDs while being intercepted just once.
And, while Williams is a true pro style, pocket passer, it is Campbell who has gotten things done with both his arm — 67.8 percent, 1,413 yards, 14 TDs, 1 INT — and his legs, rushing for 606 yards and 10 TDs, averaging 5.6 yards a carry.
Williams has enjoyed his journey at Grand Valley, which includes a 38-34 NCAA playoff win over Ferris State in 2015 after a Week 3 61-24 loss to the Bulldogs, a 35-23 regular season win in 2016 before a 47-32 loss in the playoffs. Ferris State prevented Grand Valley from reaching the postseason last year, beating the Lakers 28-27 on Reggie Bell’s 2-yard run with 15 seconds left.
“I think they are a really good football team and I think that’s what makes it such a rivalry,” said Williams of facing Ferris State. “It’s always a competitive game. Every time we play them they bring it and we bring it. We’ve gone back and forth with who wins the game. It’s been fun to be a part of and I really love playing that game.”
Matt Mitchell is in his ninth year as head coach at Grand Valley. He has been on the staff since 2004, including national title years in 2005, ’06.
“It’s been intense,” said Mitchell of the Grand Valley-Ferris State rivalry. “You’re looking at two 6-0 teams ranked No. 2 and 3 in the nation. There’s ton of good players, and if you want to talk about a story within a story you’re going to have Jayru Campbell from Cass Tech and their quarterback going up against (Michigan transfer) Dave Dawson from Cass Tech playing at guard for us.
“Jayru is putting up some big numbers, impressive stats. Those two guys, Bart and Jayru, are the top two (quarterbacks) statistically and talent-wise."
Mitchell has brought in a number of transfers, including Dawson from Michigan, along with running back Chawntez Moss (94 carries, 601 yards, 4 TDs) from Pittsburgh and a few players on the front seven defensively, led by Notre Dame transfer Johnathon Williams, Chris Hendricks and Kwanii Figueroa from Eastern Michigan, and Jake Hlava from Northern Illinois.
Jake Provencher (Utica Eisenhower) has played well, moving up from No. 5 in the depth chart to rush for 314 yards and five TDs.
Still, it all starts with Williams, who had to take a semester off last winter to become eligible for a sixth year. With no scholarship money, he worked full-time at Maple Hill Golf Shop in Grandville.
“I think the strength of my game is definitely throwing the ball down the field, throwing the ball different trajectories, different ways,” Williams said. “Every ball that gets thrown down the ball is strategically placed, whether it’s (my) back shoulder, over the top and let them run under it, all depends on how the defense is played. Obviously, I’m trying to put it in the spot where it’s away from the defense and the receiver can go up and make a play.
“My biggest improvement this year, from the last three, is hitting the checkdown. I threw two touchdowns to our tailback on plays that were kind of broken down plays in the Michigan Tech game. If you watch the NFL on two-minute drills, you see the quarterback checks the ball down to the tailback and he runs for 20 yards and he does it a couple of times and those are big chunk plays.
“No doubt, it’s not as easy as it seems because you want to hit that down the field so badly. That’s one thing I’ve improved on because I barely threw to the tailback (in past years). I was always like, ‘OK, I’m going to throw it down there,’ and that’s how I got 20 picks in 2015. I’m working through my progression a lot better, still being aggressive, but also knowing the smart play and the right play."
“He doesn’t run really well and is not real comfortable when he escapes the pocket running and I think the difference that we’ve seen here is when things are messy he’ll kind of step to the side and kind of check stuff down and let things develop," Mitchell said. "I think it comes with experience. We’ve gotten so many guys involved this year, guys out of the backfield on screens and then checkdowns. We’ve typically been wide receiver driven.”
Williams has multiple weapons, including Austin Paritee (28 receptions, 523 yards, 8 TDs), Nick Dodson (26 receptions, 454 yards, 6 TDs) and Provencher (22 receptions, 208 yards, 3 TDs).
And, Williams knows about treasuring the football, as does his teammates.
“Everybody in general is very cognizant of taking care of the football,” Williams said. “All of our running backs and all of our receivers, if you see them run they’ve always got the ball high and tight. You have a really good chance to win the game if you don’t turn the football over."
Williams is thrilled with his decision to play for the Lakers.
“I’m happy that I had the opportunity to do it (break the passing records) because if you don’t get to play for four years you don’t get to touch those records” Williams said. “Coming out of high school when you’re looking at playing college football, you get caught up a lot in playing Division I, and then like my situation doesn’t work out so you play Division II. And, when you look back at it, it’s like did you really want to play Division I football or did you just want to play football?
“I’m at the point where I’m just glad that I’ve had the opportunity to make an impact on a college football team. Everybody here at Grand Valley has been great, all my coaches and teammates. The operation is, it’s not like a vacation where you just show up on Saturdays and play football. It’s just as serious as Division I. You prep every week, every day. There’s something you’re responsible all year.”
Tale of the tape
How Ferris State and Grand Valley State compare this season:
Total yards: Ferris 558.2, Grand Valley 456.7
Rushing yards: Ferris 299.5, Grand Valley 183.2
Passing yards: Ferris 258.7, Grand Valley 273.5
Points: Ferris 44.3, Grand Valley 38.3
Points Allowed: Ferris 17.3, Grand Valley 12.0