HOUGHTON - The stage is set for one of Michigan Tech's biggest football games in school history.
The No. 22 Huskies host the No. 3 Grand Valley State Lakers, and the two undefeated teams will play in the second night game in Sherman Field history at 6 p.m. Saturday, in front of what Tech is hoping will be the biggest crowd in school history, thanks to its "Drive for 5 (5,000)" promotion (adult tickets $5, youth tickets $3). Weather forecasts predict 60 degrees and relatively clear skies, and there are no other local sporting events competing for attention.
"I told our football team it's set up for you," Tech coach Tom Kearly said. "You have a chance to have a great evening with the community, but we have to play. We realize the challenge in front of us."
GVSU has a 22-3 all-time record against Tech, but the Huskies shocked them with a 20-17 home win over the Lakers in 2010, ending what was at the time a 16-game winning streak. Last year Tech led by two touchdowns at halftime against GVSU, but lost a 24-20 heartbreaker in Allendale. Now, Tech welcomes the winningest program in Division II football history back to Houghton looking to end GVSU's D2-best 11-game winning streak.
"Last year we lost by four points at their house. We're right there with them skill-wise, and whoever shows up and plays better is going to win the game," said senior defensive tackle Justin Blake, who missed the big 2010 win with a broken leg.
"I didn't play last year because of my ankle injury, too, so I'm extremely excited to play and finally get a crack at these guys and get a win out of it," added Blake, whose interior pass rush has helped guide Tech to 11 team sacks this year, good for second in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. "It'll be the biggest home game of my career, definitely."
The biggest key to Tech winning its biggest game of the year so far will be stopping GVSU's big-play league-leading offense. The Lakers have the worst time of possession in the conference, while Tech has the best, but that's just the way GVSU likes it.
The Lakers have scored 98 more points than their opponents and they've had 11 scoring drives under two minutes, six under one minute and three lasting exactly seven seconds. And watch out if Grand Valley ever gets inside the 20, where it is 20 for 22 in red zone scoring - all 20 scores being touchdowns.
Kearly said the biggest key to victory is to limit GVSU's big plays, and the Lakers certainly have plenty of players capable of making big plays. Headlining the group that will challenge Tech's defense - which leads the GLIAC in five different defensive statistical categories - is 6-foot-3, 225-pound preseason All-American wide receiver Charles Johnson.
But the Huskies feel fortunate to have a big playmaker of their own on the defensive side of the ball in freshman linebacker Paul Kuoppala.
"Every team is going to take their shots. We just want to play solid throughout the whole game and hopefully limit their big chances," said Kuoppala, who already has a fumble return touchdown against Tiffin, a Tech special teams player of the week honor against Walsh and an interception against Findlay.
The Huskies will hope for more of the same this week against GVSU sophomore quarterback Isiah Grimes, who will be making just his second career start filling in for Heath Parling, who is out for the season with a torn ACL.
GVSU is also injury ravaged on defense, and the Lakers are coming off a five-point win in which they surrendered 41 points to Ohio Dominican.
So, the opportunity is there for Tech to utilize the big play on offense, too.
"They have given up some big plays. That's not like them, but I think a large part of it is probably the injuries," Kearly said. "I do think the way their defense is schemed you have to hit some big plays."
Ohio Dominican certainly did that last week, racking up an incredible 630 yards of offense - more than 500 of those yards on plays of 10 or more yards.
"On film, there's some big plays out there for us to get," Tech quarterback Tyler Scarlett said. "We just have to execute and take care of the ball."
While the Huskies will need to open up the playbook against GVSU, don't think they'll be abandoning the run, which has been successful thanks to Charlie Leffingwell, Cedrick Barber and Akeem Cason each averaging more than 40 yards per game.
"This week against Grand Valley is going to be a little tougher," said Leffingwell, who leads the Huskies with 229 rushing yards this season. "We'll have to make a couple guys miss, and that's what I've been working on."
Special teams should also be an intriguing match-up, and while those statistics often go unnoticed, Kearly said it's important to note the Lakers have the GLIAC's best kickoff return average (29.2 yards), punt return average (31.2 yards) and kickoff coverage (45.6 yards), and the Lakers are second in punting average (40.2 yards).
It'll take a well-rounded effort for Tech to knock off GVSU yet again at Sherman Field, but with how close the last couple games have been between the two teams, it promises to be an intriguing match-up befitting a duel between two top 25 teams.
"The last two years we've held up - we beat them once and had another shot to get them," Kearly said. "I think the confidence level of our kids, I don't think they'll wonder if we can beat them. I think we know if we play well we have a chance to win the football game."