Bigger tests lie ahead for Harding

Harding running back Braden Jay (7) runs for yardage against Central Missouri defense Nov. 25 at First Security Stadium in Searcy.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)
Harding running back Braden Jay (7) runs for yardage against Central Missouri defense Nov. 25 at First Security Stadium in Searcy. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Not long after his team had held on to beat Central Missouri in the second round of the NCAA Division II football playoffs last week, Harding University Coach Paul Simmons mentioned that he had a feeling that his defense wouldn't be happy with the way they had just played.

The Mules piled up 534 yards, including 425 yards passing by Zach Zebrowski, 27 first downs and scored 34 points, all of which were season-high totals for a Bisons' opponent this season. However, the 35 points Harding scored mattered more than anything else that went on during that game.

That same theory will hold true today when the top-seeded Bisons host No. 2 seed Grand Valley (Mich.) State at 1 p.m. in the national quarterfinals at First Security Stadium in Searcy.

"I'm crazy proud of the defense, but I can promise you that the defensive staff and our guys, they're not going to be pleased with the way they played," Simmons said in reference to their effort against Central Missouri. "They left way too much out there. Way too many times we had the quarterback in the backfield and let him out. Obviously, he's a great player, but I can tell you that I'm thrilled with the defense.

"But I know that their standard is really, really high, and my gut is they're going to be disappointed, which is crazy because at this time of year, all that mattered is if we were putting on the pads on Monday."

Harding did suit up again earlier this week and put in plenty of work in preparation for what'll be another bulky challenge, but this one will be a little different than the last.

While Central Missouri provided the Bisons will their toughest game of the season -- mainly because of the offensive pressure applied by Zebrowski, a Harlon Hill finalist, and the pace that which his team played -- the Mules were relatively playoff newbies. Last week's playoff game against Harding was their ninth in Division II.

The same can't be said about Grand Valley State.

The Lakers are in the playoffs for the 22nd time since they began playing football in 1971. Over that 52-year span, they've posted a 39-17 postseason record and captured four national titles (2002, 2003, 2005, 2006).

Grand Valley State is also making its second straight appearance in the quarterfinals after beating 2022 national champion Ferris State 21-14 in the first round and rallying late in the fourth quarter to beat Pittsburg (Kan.) State 24-21 a week ago.

"We had not played from behind since Week 2," Grand Valley State Coach Scott Wooster said of his team, which has won 11 consecutive games but trailed the Gorillas 21-14 with just over five minutes to go last week. "There is something about this football team that I've never been around in my 37 years in the sport, 24 years coaching. I've been around some awesome teams, awesome human beings, awesome dudes, but there is something about this football team that is special."

Wooster watched his group produce some unique moments against Pittsburg State. Grand Valley State scored 21 points off four turnovers. The final one -- an interception by Ian Kennelly with 3:21 left -- allowed the Lakers to put together what turned out to be the game-winning drive, capped by a 5-yard touchdown run from Avery Moore with 31 seconds remaining.

"The coolest thing about playoff football is that it doesn't matter how you get it done if you get it done," Grand Valley State quarterback Cade Peterson said. "That's the thing that I think these guys, and this squad, hangs their hat on. It doesn't matter how it looks, it doesn't matter where it gets because we know that we're going to play for one another. And that'll end up topping talent and execution at the end of the day."

Peterson, who was recently named the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Player of the Year, has passed for nearly 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns this season for Grand Valley State, which averages almost 47 points per game. The Lakers have been efficient on the ground as well, with six players running for 224 yards or more. As a group, they average 235.6 yards rushing, which ranks seventh in Division II, with Tariq Reid leading the team with 752 yards and 14 touchdowns.

The Lakers lead Division II in sacks with 51, spearheaded by Niles King's 10. Christian McCarroll, the league's defensive lineman of the year, has eight.

But with the way Harding plays, Grand Valley State may not get many chances to corral the Bisons' quarterback.

Harding has thrown the ball just 48 times and allowed a Division II-low two sacks because its offense has racked up more than 5,000 rushing yards. Blake Delacruz went over the 1,000-yard last week and Braden Jay is 139 yards away from doing the same. The Lakers, though, give up just 59.7 yards rushing per game, which is third.

Still, the Bisons aren't going to get away from what they've done better than anyone all season. Harding will try to plug away on the ground, but it may require a bit more from the Bisons if they're going to advance to next week's semifinals, particularly on the other side of the ball.

"I think the defense definitely left some opportunities out there [vs. Central Missouri]," said Harding's Nathaniel Wallace, who was recently named the Super Three Region Defensive Player of the Year. "Our offense definitely helped us out, but that's what we do. We help each other out when one's struggling."

The Bisons may be pushed by the Lakers, but the way they responded against the Mules bodes well, Simmons said.

"If you're not put in situations with adversity on Saturdays, then you've got to create those situations," said Simmons, whose team had won 10 of its previous games by at least 31 points going into the matchup with Central Missouri. "You've got to create opportunities for guys to be challenged and have to come through. Our coaches have done a great job of that."

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