No. 9 Rock football sits alone atop the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Western division following a 45-42 win over archrival Indiana (Pa.), but the time for celebration is over, according to head coach Shawn Lutz.
“[If Edinboro] beats [SRU], [we] basically save their season. It could be a program changer for them. We can’t get too excited, we can’t look ahead and we can’t do anything but get better. We just need to worry about Edinboro. IUP is over,” Lutz said.
The Rock (6-0, 3-0 PSAC) will play the Fighting Scots (1-5, 1-2 PSAC) in a battle of teams on opposite ends of the PSAC standings, but Lutz said records might as well be thrown out the window for this game.
“They get up for Slippery Rock. They’ll be ready to go. I know their record doesn’t indicate that, but they’re gonna be ready to play,” Lutz said.
All too often, teams coming off of emotional wins are subject to hangovers the following week, especially if that next team is overlooked as particularly weak. In order to be a truly elite football team in Division II football, Lutz said SRU needs to consistently show up each week.
“It’s like this: If you want to be elite, if you want to be the best, you’ve got to play like that each and every week,” Lutz said. “I know you don’t get style points in Division II, but we’ve got to get better in some areas. I expect Edinboro to play us tough, and if we’re not ready and we keep it a game, anything can happen.”
An area that has consistently improved each week, originally an area of weakness for SRU, has been the run game.
Through the first three weeks of the season, SRU’s air raid offense lit up opponents’ defenses to the tune of 1,193 yards through the air and 436 yards on the ground. The imbalance did not hurt SRU as star quarterback Roland Rivers III jumped out as an early Harlon Hill Award candidate.
However, the lack of consistency in the run game left fears of stronger teams locking down Rivers and forcing SRU to run the ball.
Against No. 16 IUP, senior running back Charles Snorweah put together his best all-around performance in a Green and White jersey, on the way to 123 yards and a touchdown.
“I think [Snorweah] is finally starting to get a little separation,” Lutz said. “The thing I like that he’s doing is running so hard. He doesn’t mess around, so when he gets the ball, he goes downhill. He makes that one cut and goes. He was running some guys over and breaking some tackles.”
SRU’s 230 rushing yards were the most since Week 1 against Wayne State and Snorweah provided The Rock with its first 100-yard rusher since Wes Hills last season against Notre Dame (Oh.). Rivers, the team’s leading rusher through six weeks, chipped in 81 yards and junior running back DeSean Dinkins picked up two touchdowns in short-yardage situations — one of which was his 4th-and-2 carry that went for a 29-yard touchdown.
“DeSean is still the short-yardage guy. We have a clearer picture of the running backs at one and two. We feel confident about that now,” Lutz said.
Over the past three weeks, the offense has evened out significantly as the one-two punch of Snorweah and Dinkins has solidified. The passing yards (686) still outgain the rushing yards (640 yards), but The Rock has showcased an offensive versatility against a variety of opponents.
Although, Lutz is still waiting for Snorweah to bounce a run outside and show off his track speed on a run this season.
First-year offensive coordinator Adam Neugebauer’s offense ranks near the top of Division II football in a variety of stats. Quarterback efficiency (204.7) and fourth-down conversion rate (100%) pace all of D-II football. SRU’s offense, which is led by Rivers, Snorweah and receivers Henry Litwin, Jermaine Wynn Jr. and Cinque Sweeting, ranks inside the top 10 nationally in points per game (second), turnovers lost (second), completion percentage (third), turnover margin (fourth), passing offense (seventh) and total offense (eighth).
Rivers, who did not light up the scoreboard by himself for once against IUP, leads all of Division II quarterbacks in the aforementioned passing efficiency, passing touchdowns (24) and points responsible for (174). The senior from Georgia has passed for 1,800 yards and rushed for 367 more with five additional touchdowns on the ground.
With only one touchdown in the air against IUP, and an additional touchdown on a 10-yard rush, Lutz said the stat sheet did a poor job showing Rivers’ true impact on the pivotal divisional clash.
“I think he put the ball on the money that game,” Lutz said. “No offense to him, but Henry Litwin, if he highpoints the ball, he catches it. I think it was a matter of their secondary was really good, but Roland had a great day.”
Rivers needs eight touchdowns to tie the single-season passing touchdown record set by Tanner Garry in 2017, which would also happen to tie Nate Crookshank for the most in program history with 60.
Lutz praised Rivers’ continued evolution this season, explaining how he’s continued to grow as a leader and a quarterback.
“You notice how many times he turned and ran this game and just got the extra yards? He really grew up as a quarterback. He pulled a lot on the ball in the game against the zone read,” Lutz said.
Rivers will face off against a Fighting Scots defense that allows 29.7 points per game, good for 10th in the PSAC. The pass defense has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 59.7% of their passes for 1,342 passing yards this season.
According to Lutz, the Fighting Scots defense is a group with some talent, but they’re forced to stay on the field due to an offense that struggles to string drives together. The player Rivers will have to watch out for, Lutz said, is defensive back Brandon Anderson.
“They play some defense, but they just haven’t done a great job on offense, which keeps their defense on the field. Their guys that’s just special is Brandon Anderson, their safety. He plays everywhere,” Lutz said.
Anderson leads Edinboro with 60 tackles, six tackles for loss and two interceptions.
The veteran Anderson contrasts starkly with true freshman defensive back Selvin Haynes, his counterpart for SRU, in experience.
Against IUP, Haynes experienced some growing pains as IUP quarterback Quinton Maxwell targeted him throughout the majority of the second half, Lutz said. Haynes is the lone underclassmen in a veteran secondary led by juniors Dalton Holt and Khadir Roberts and senior Eric Glover-Williams.
“They were exploiting our freshman [Haynes] at the slot position,” Lutz said. “That’s the weakness of our defense with how we play. We’ve got to help him a little bit, get some safety help over the top. I think they targeted him the entire second half.”
Starting its third-string quarterback, Levi Becker, the Fighting Scots will attempt to find success against a Rock defense that allows only 21.1 points per game.
After losing star running back Walter Fletcher, who transferred to Ball State for his senior season, the Fighting Scots have struggled to score this season.
Edinboro ranks third-worst in the PSAC with 15.5 points per game. To make matters worse, the offense struggles to move the ball on the ground or in the air. The Fighting Scots rank second to last in the conference in total passing yards (991) and rushing yards (358) while ranking dead last in total yards (1349).
For the Fighting Scots to have any success against a defense that gets to the quarterback better than anyone in the PSAC and holds opponents to 72.7 yards on the ground per game, good for second-best in the conference, Lutz said Edinboro’s offense will need to go through Ta’Nauz Gregory.
“He can return kicks, he can be in the backfield as a running back, and I think we’ll get him as a wildcat. He’s gonna be multi-use. He’s quick, elusive and he reminds me of a Jermaine Wynn or Cinque Sweeting,” Lutz said.
The senior wide receiver leads Edinboro with 442 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 36 catches. His yards account for nearly half of the passing yards thrown by Fighting Scots quarterbacks this year and only one touchdown through the air has gone to another receiver.
Despite matching up with a team using its third-string quarterback in the midst of an offensive drought, Lutz emphasized remaining true to the defensive mantra.
“We’re going to play a game where we just get pressure with our guys and play our man coverage,” Lutz said. “We’re always going to be a pressure team, but we’re just going to play our game. We’ve just got to win our one-on-one matchups.”
With the game slated for a 12 p.m. kickoff at Sox Harrison Stadium, SRU has a chance to improve to 7-0 for the first time since 1939 with a win.
However, Lutz is just focused on starting off fast against the Fighting Scots and leaving no doubt as to who the best team in the PSAC is.
“They have nothing to lose, so they’re going to do everything you can think of to us,” Lutz said. “You never know what’s going to happen; we’re up at their place and they usually have a pretty decent crowd up there. If we win the toss, we’re taking the ball. We want to jump all over them right off the bat.”