ALLENDALE, Mich. (WOOD) — There is an elephant in the room for anyone who follows Grand Valley State University football.

It’s simple — beat your rival Ferris State and a chance at a National Championship is that much closer.

Head coach Matt Mitchell acknowledged the struggles his Lakers have had against the Bulldogs. They are currently in the longest losing streak against FSU (6 games) in school history. 

However, even with that storm cloud hanging over his program, Mitchell has his eyes set on clearer skies this season with a new slate of games. Right now, the nationally ranked No. 4 Lakers just need to get a win in week one.

“When you have a team coming in who finished last season in the semifinals ranked No. 3 or 4 in the polls, it’s easy to keep the focus on winning in week one,” Mitchell said. “Look, Ferris was a National Champion, we played with that standard twice last year. What we take away from that contest is that’s the level of play we need to have to do the things we want to do. 

“If we look ahead to week seven too much, that’s gonna hurt our program and we’re going to stub our toe. It’s also disrespectful to everyone else on our roster and I’m not going to allow us to do that,” said Mitchell.

He emphasized the difficulty of the schedule as a whole. The challenge starts on week one.

The Lakers welcome Colorado School of Mines to town, who is currently ranked at No. 5 in the preseason poll, just one slot behind GVSU. The following week they travel to Colorado State-Pueblo who is ranked No. 35 in the country.

The competition is there for the Lakers in the early going, which is why having so many returning players from a season ago should benefit them. From a team that went 10-2 and 6-1 in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference play a season ago, GVSU returns 18 starters. None are more important than Cade Peterson. 

The junior quarterback threw for 2,130 yards a season ago with 26 touchdowns, adding 559 yards and seven scores on the ground. He is ready to take a step as more of a leader on this team vocally and with his play. 

“I’ve really tried to become the best leader that I can be by leading by example,” Peterson said. “I’m doing the best I can every day to use motivational words as well. We have a passion on this team for the way we play offense and play football in general, we have the talent and skill, we need to go out there and put it on the field.”

Although the team lost transfer wideout Hunter Rison from last season who was a playmaker in the offense, there are players Peterson believes are ready to step in and make a difference. Sophomore Cody Tierney (411 yards with two touchdowns in 2021) and senior Jacob Miller (349 yards with 5 scores a season ago) are believed to be the top-two pass catchers in the offense.

On the defensive side of the ball, the coaching staff points to Abe Swanson as a leader right away. The junior led the Lakers with 104 tackles in 2021, including three sacks, an interception and two forced fumbles. While there is plenty of experience back on defense as well, Swanson mentioned how much he loves what the younger classmen have brought so far in summer camp.

“In the past I’ve been the one working with the older guys,” Swanson said. “This unit is diverse. You got a lot of different younger dudes stepping up and even the older guys can get checked by those younger guys and I think that’s a really cool aspect about this defense.”

When Mitchell was asked about the defense, he mentioned another key piece — junior defensive end Colton Hyble who had a team-high of 10 quarterback hurries a season ago. Both players’ efforts were a key reason opponents only averaged 18 points a game against the Lakers in 2021.

The players are ready to get back out in front of the crowd at Lubbers Stadium and show what they have to offer in 2022. While Mitchell has been focused on the day-to-day tasks, he did admit he is excited for this group.

“We have to be the best version of us in week one and find a way to get the win without having a lot of turnovers because that gets teams early on a lot,” Mitchell said. “I’ve had no drama with this group. We didn’t have a lot of guys to to the transfer portal and leave and I think a lot of that reason is guys think we are going to be good. There’s a lot of synergy and energy, we will use the brotherhood we’ve built to fight through the moments where we don’t play great.”

The first game of the season against Colorado School of Mines is on Thursday, Sept. 1 at 7:00 p.m. at Lubbers Stadium in Allendale.