Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin set the standard that is Grand Valley State football.
Matt Mitchell is looking to continue that success on the national level. And that begins with today’s Division II semifinals at Northwest Missouri State.
"It's very satisfying," Mitchell said of Grand Valley State's return to the Final Four for the first time since 2009. "That's our expectation. It's the reason kids sign their national letter-of-intent to come here, to play in these types of games. It's the validation for a lot of hard work that we're doing."
And Mitchell has a lot to live up to.
Kelly, now at Notre Dame, led Grand Valley State to three consecutive championship games, winning in 2002 and 2003. And Martin, now at Miami (Ohio), won back-to-back titles in 2005-06, with Mitchell working with the defense.
And that's where Mitchell hopes this year's team will make its mark.
Grand Valley State already has slowed three teams to open the playoffs.
• It limited Saginaw Valley State to seven points.
• It held Colorado State-Pueblo to seven second-half points.
• It blanked West Texas A&M in the second half.
"I think we knew our defense was the reason we didn't make the playoffs last year," Mitchell said. "We knew we had to attack some things, so our staff went to University of Alabama to talk and learn about some stuff. We made some moves from the technique standpoint. In the past we were more of a 2-high safety style and now we have one high and play with more zone coverage."
And, Mitchell knows Grand Valley State will have to stop the run since Northwest Missouri State, averaging 52 points in the playoffs, is known for its running game (206.7 average).
"They like to run the ball, and that will be a new challenge for us," Lakers sophomore defensive end DeOndre Hogan said of Robert Burton (769 yards, seven touchdowns) and Billy Creason (653 yards, 13 touchdowns). "That's fine with me. I like getting dirty.
"The last four weeks we've gone against Harlon Hill quarterbacks. We take a lot of pride in the fact we stopped them."
Hogan, who stepped in for Mark Judon (season-ending injury), has 55 tackles, 11 for loss, and eight sacks. He was twice named Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference defensive player of the week.
But he has help.
Junior nose tackle Isiah Dunning has 61 tackles, including 8.5 for loss; and junior defensive end Matt Mosley has 81 tackles, 12.5 for loss.
"This is what I expected when I signed that national letter-of-intent, to play in a big game like this," Dunning said. "Now I know what it feels like and it feels good to be part of that tradition.
"We know they're going to score Saturday, but we have to get the ball back to our offense as much as possible."