The clock on the scoreboard was stopped, just big, fluorescent orange numbers glowing through the snowy, gray sky.
4:29 left to go. The Rock: 15, Minnesota St.: 58.
A once boisterous crowd had gone all but silent as most of the students left just after halftime. However, a large contingent of fans still lingered about, huddled in the stands just above the home locker room tunnel.
The game was over. If not by the time remaining then by the big, orange number 58 on the scoreboard.
Slippery Rock star quarterback Roland Rivers III still took the field, slowly jogging out to his 25-yard line. For what would likely be the final drive under center at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium, Rivers lined up the backfield.
His first pass of the drive was caught by junior wide receiver Henry Litwin, a familiar target. His favorite target. If anyone was going to compete with Rivers until the last whistle, it would be Litwin.
20 yards and a first down. A couple of run plays later, Slippery Rock was inside Minnesota State territory. A 27-yard throw and catch between Rivers and his receiver had the ball on the 15-yard line.
First and 10, incomplete pass. Second and 10, a quick run resulted in a loss of four yards. Third and 14, Rivers is unable to hook up with Litwin.
Fourth and 14 coming up.
Seated in a cramped football office, a couple of days after a thrashing of Wayne State in Week 1, Rivers lamented on missed opportunities the season before.
Rivers had been consumed by the thought of leaving points on the field against Notre Dame College in the NCAA Division quarterfinals. Finally, back on the football field, he was ready for another shot — his final shot.
Buoyed by a historic 472 yard, seven touchdown performance, Rivers and the high-powered offense established an “accountability and discipline or bust” mentality—opposed to the rigid “championship or bust” mentality that permeates professional sports—that carried through the rest of the season.
After opening the season by dropping 62 points on a Wayne State squad that ended the season as the runner-up in an uber-competitive Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, Slippery Rock blitzed its next four opponents by a combined 203-47 margin.
Shippensburg, who had nearly derailed Slippery Rock with a shocking upset at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium the season before, Millersville, Seton Hill and Mercyhurst fell before the offensive juggernaut. With over 1,600 passing yards and 23 touchdowns in just five games, without completing a single fourth quarter, Rivers was producing absurd numbers.
But Slippery Rock had not truly been tested yet. That would change when Indiana (Pa.) came to town on homecoming.
Jumping out to a magical 31-14 halftime lead over archrival Indiana, Slippery Rock appeared well on its way the biggest win over IUP in years. Except, it’s never that easy against IUP.
If not for the drive of the season—although another monumental drive stands out later in the season—against the vaunted Indiana defense, the season most likely ends in early October.
Producing a mediocre stat line by his sky-high standards, Rivers stepped up when it mattered. Converting a crucial fourth down conversion on his side of the field and a wild circus play third down play later in the drive, Rivers and the offense did enough to edge out a 45-42 victory over IUP.
Once again, it looked like the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Western Division would be ruled by Slippery Rock.
A surprisingly close game against Edinboro and an unsurprisingly not close game against Clarion, on ESPN nonetheless, brought Slippery Rock to its last true test of the season: California (Pa.) and its indomitable run defense.
Facing a defense that allowed Division II best 36.8 rushing yards per game, Slippery Rock ran over California to the tune of 213 yards. Including 135 from Rivers, to go along with 281 yards in the air and four touchdowns.
Arguably the peak of his injury-plagued season, senior kicker Jake Chapla booted the walk-off field goal to win the PSAC-West over Cal-U.
Setting a couple of school and conference records in a 56-7 drubbing of Gannon, Slippery Rock was ready for the PSAC championship game against Kutztown.
Despite trailing by seven at the half, Slippery Rock had trouble keeping up with Collin DiGalbo and Kutztown for most of the game. A 28-21 deficit felt like it could have been 28-7, and on the road, six hours from Slippery Rock, a 35-21 deficit entering the fourth quarter felt like the end of the season.
Here comes that drive I mentioned earlier.
Despite being carved apart through the first three quarters of the game, the Slippery Rock defense stifled the Kutztown offense to just six yards of offense until its final possession.
Trailing by four points with 2:06 left in the game, Rivers and the offense got the ball back on their 35-yard line.
A methodical drive of Rivers hooking up with star wide receivers Henry Litwin and Jermaine Wynn, Jr. and a couple of inspired runs from senior running back Charles Snorweah saw Slippery Rock take its first lead of the game with just 25 seconds left.
An eight-yard touchdown run from Snorweah was good enough to clinch Slippery Rock its first PSAC Championship since the 2015 season. A 300 yard, four touchdown day clinched Rivers the game MVP.
The resolve the team showed through the season, especially in its two and three point wins over IUP, Cal-U and Kutztown, left a lasting memory with Lutz.
“I can go back and remember the IUP game, the Cal game and I’ll never forget about the Kutztown game,” Lutz said. “And for those guys to just keep playing and playing and playing for 60 minutes and not give up is special. Especially in that PSAC championship game.”
Clinching the No. 1 seed in the Atlantic Region, Slippery Rock was afforded a first-round bye and awaited the outcome of IUP and Shepherd.
Somewhat surprisingly, led by sophomore quarterback Tyson Bagent, Shepherd scored the upset.
Shepherd’s Cinderella run ended at the hands–err, hand–of Rivers. And, of course, Wynn.
Another 400 yard, four touchdown day from Rivers, which saw Wynn record a Division II playoff record 18 receptions, downed Shepherd, 51-30. With Notre Dame winning its own game, Slippery Rock was pitted against Notre Dame in a rematch so many players had hoped for.
Rivers was getting the shot that he had so desperately wanted. And he didn’t disappoint.
Falling behind 14-0 in the first five minutes and 21-7 in the first six minutes, Slippery Rock faced an uphill climb to redemption.
Trailing 24-21 at the end of the first quarter, the game was already more prolific than its first rendition the year before.
Having thrown three touchdown passes in the first half, Rivers wasn’t satisfied. He proceeded to throw three more in the second quarter. Leading 49-31 at halftime, Rivers had accounted for 383 passing yards and six touchdowns.
Slippery Rock and Notre Dame traded scores throughout the second half, including a pair of rushing touchdowns from Rivers, en route to a 65-59 revenge win.
If the season had ended on the field that afternoon, it would have been like something out of a television program.
A 13-0 season, the best in school history capped off by a redemption win over the team that had ended its season the year before.
Unfortunately for Slippery Rock, the best season in school history ended with a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth — for the second straight season.
Clinching the No. 2 seed in a reseed of the four semifinalists remaining in Division II football, Slippery Rock earned the opportunity to host Minnesota State-Mankato for a chance to advance to the national championship in McKinney, Texas.
In a cold, snowy game on the day of graduation, Slippery Rock experienced a game where everything that could have gone wrong, did. However, trailing 30-8 at halftime, SRU held onto a glimmer of hope.
Closing the deficit to 30-15 midway through the quarter, the game felt like it had hit a turning point where the next score would likely decide the outcome of the game.
And less than 20 seconds later, Minnesota State torched the Slippery Rock secondary for a 73-yard touchdown strike. Game over.
Minnesota State coasted to a 58-15 win and ended Slippery Rock’s season just short of its ultimate goal: the national championship.
While Slippery Rock head coach Shawn Lutz can look back and appreciate the magnitude of the season his squad just completed, as he said through the season, only one team will end the season happy. And that was West Florida.
Already, Lutz is gearing up for another shot at the national championship.
“No more shaking hands, patting people on the back and all that kind of stuff,” Lutz said. “It’s time to work. And one motto we kind of took is, ‘be relentless or be forgotten.’ This senior class set the bar pretty high.”
Relentless or forgotten, and Lutz certainly isn’t trying to be forgotten.
Greatest Team of All Time
Even though the end goal wasn’t accomplished, this season’s squad went further than any team before them. And did it as the best team in school history.
“We did something special,” Lutz said. “I’m really proud of our senior class, those guys made history. Not even to have one slip up in the regular season is special; it’s never been done here.”
Lutz said a lot of credit must go to the senior class. When the times got tough and the team faced diversity, he said his seniors were the ones to get the team through it.
For the first time school history, Slippery Rock started the season 13-0; no other team had even started a season 10-0.
On the winding road to 13 wins this season, Slippery Rock picked up the 600th win in program history with a victory over Millersville.
Greatest Player of All Time
Every week, it seemed like Rivers would break a new school record.
Let’s recap his season in awards and honors:
- Harlon Hill Award
- Maxwell Football Club’s Brian Westbrook Regional Athlete of the Year
- Don Hansen Football Gazette Division II National Offensive Player of the Year
- D2CCA National Offensive Player of the Year
- AP, D2CCA, D2football.com, Don Hansen Gazette All-American
- Super Region One Offensive Player of the Year
- PSAC-West Athlete of the Year
- PSAC Championship MVP
If there were was an award for Rivers to win this season, he won it. He was far and away the best quarterback in Division II football, and when he won the Harlon Hill Award, it was confirmed he was the best player in Division II football, too.
With 4,460 passing yards and 52 passing touchdowns on 332-for-481 passing, along with 700 more yards and nine touchdowns on the ground, Rivers completed arguably the best season for a quarterback, or any player for that matter, in Division II history.
After his historic season, the Georgia native owns the Slippery Rock single-season record for completions, passing yards, passing touchdowns and total offense. He also shattered the SRU career passing touchdowns record with 80 in just 26 games.
Leading Division II football in passing yards, passing touchdowns, total offense and points responsible for this season, Rivers broke or tied the Division II single-season record for touchdowns responsible for (61), points responsible for (370) and games with 300 yards passing (11).
It’s impossible to overstate the impact Rivers had on Slippery Rock football during his time in a green and white jersey, but he is just happy that he was able to be a part of it.
Not one to campaign for individual honors since Slippery Rock football is so much bigger than just the individual, Lutz was unable to not campaign for his star quarterback at points throughout the season.
“If Roland Rivers doesn’t win the Harlon Hill, you tell me a better football player in all of Division II,” Lutz said after Rivers’ performance against Notre Dame. “I usually don’t say this, I’m not campaigning, but he’s the best football player in the country.”
With his playing career at Slippery Rock now over, Lutz knows where he ranks: No. 1.
Star Studded Offensive Attack
While it would be easy to overlook the rest of the offense with the way Rivers dominated opponents all season, he was often quick to share the limelight.
However, Wynn made it pretty clear who the emotional and physical leader of the offense.
“He’s a leader,” Wynn said. “He’s an emotional leader; it’s very easy to get behind this guy. He sees the field unlike any other quarterback I’ve ever seen, his work ethic is unmatched, he lives football, he breathes football. So, he makes my job so much easier because I know all I’ve got to do is run my route and [Rivers] will get me the ball.”
As the leader of the most prolific offense in school history, the record-breaking season would have been impossible if not for the collection of talent across all skill positions.
Setting the school record for most yards (7,024), points (647) and touchdowns (89), a lot of that came through the air. First-year offensive coordinator Adam Neugebauer’s air raid offense made the most of Rivers’ incredible rapport with juniors Henry Litwin, Wynn and Cinque Sweeting.
Slippery Rock became only school in NCAA history, across all levels, to boast two wide receivers with 1,300 receiving yards.
Litwin set SRU single-season records with 103 catches for 1,509 yards and 21 touchdowns. His 29th career touchdown catch also broke the career record.
Not far behind, Wynn would have broken the catch record if not for Litwin, hauling in 95 catches for 1,339 yards and 15 touchdowns.
The pairs’ bond, which extends far beyond their relationship off the field, pushed them to outdo each other in every game this season.
Not lost in “LitWynn” hype, Sweeting, in his first year at Slippery Rock after transferring from nearly became the third 1,000-yard receiver on the team. The Seton Hill transfer recorded 53 receptions for 839 yards and nine touchdowns.
After losing running back Wes Hills to the NFL, former Rutgers running back Charles Snorweah transferred into the program with large shoes to fill.
Even if he did end up a few yards short of his preseason expectations, Snorweah led the team in rushing yards and made his mark in the national playoffs.
And when the passing game wasn’t clicking against IUP, Snorweah led the way with 123 yards and a touchdown.
“No one ran the ball against [Cal and IUP], and I think we had over 200 yards rushing in both of those games,” Lutz said.
In just 12 games, Snorweah rumbled for 827 yards on 168 totes, good for 4.9 yards per carry, and found the end zone 11 times.
While Slippery Rock defeated Shepherd by 21 in the second round of the playoffs, Snorweah rushed for 38- and 36-yard touchdowns down the stretch to put the game away.
His 196 yard, three touchdown day was a glimpse into what could have been done if everything had gone right for the speedy senior.
Snorweah admitted that even with all the attention the offense received, even from his family back in New Jersey, he had to talk about Rivers.
“When I call my folks back home, they talk about our offense,” Snorweah said. “I’m like, ‘yeah, man, it really does start with Roland.’ He’s really a playmaker.”
Like replacing an All-American in Wes Hills, the offensive line was forced to replace an All-American of their own in Steve Gaviglia and an all-region player in Colten Raabe.
Offensive line coach Chris Conrad took joy in watching the offensive line develop as the season went along, with a group of largely unheralded guys.
“The development of our guys upfront and from the offense as a whole,” Conrad said. “Starting off how we did with 63 points at Wayne State, we really had no idea what we were gonna do.”
With the offense stealing headlines all season, and deservedly so, the defense sometimes flew under the radar.
As the quick-strike offense put together two minute scoring drive after two minute scoring drive, the defense soemtimes didn’t get the rest it needed.
The defense welcomed it.
While the defense faced some adversity this season, junior defensive end Chad Kuhn, junior linebacker Tim Vernick or senior linebacker Brad Zaffram would usually be there to make a stop when one was needed.
In the Kutztown game, after being dominated for three quarters, the defense played its best quarter of the season in the fourth. Allowing just six yards and forcing multiple three and outs, it gave the offense a chance to win the game.
“That game really showed the team going through adversity and being able to step up and fight through it and we were rewarded at the end,” linebackers coach Marc Hull said. “I think that took us through to the playoffs.”
While the defense might have ended the season with a performance it would rather forget, much like the rest of the team, a lot of the team returns for one more run.
Junior defensive end Chad Kuhn led the PSAC in sacks this season with 11.5 while senior linebacker Brad Zaffram finished second in the conference with 19.5 tackles for loss.
Zaffram led the team with 93 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions and three forced fumbles in his final season with Slippery Rock.
Shawn Lutz: Hansen national Co-Coach of the Year and PSAC-West Coach of the Year.
Roland Rivers III, senior QB: everything.
Chris Larsen, senior OT: First-team AP, D2CCA and Hansen All-American, first-team All-PSAC, first-team All-Region and finalist for the Gene Upshaw Division II lineman of the year award.
Ryan Podgorski, senior OT: Third-team Hansen All-American, Hansen and D2CCA All-Region and first-team All-PSAC.
Jake Tecak, senior OT: Second-team All-PSAC.
Henry Litwin, junior WR: First-team D2CAA All-American, second-team AP All-American, third-team Hansen All-American, first-team All-Region and first-team All-PSAC.
Jermaine Wynn, Jr, junior WR: Honorable mention Hansen All-American, first-team All-Region and second-team All-PSAC.
Brad Zaffram, senior LB: First-team D2CCA All-American, second-team AP All-American, third-team Hansen All-American and first-team All-PSAC.
Chad Kuhn, junior DE: Second-team D2CCA and AP All-American, First-team All-Region and first-team All-PSAC.
Jeff Marx, sophomore DL: First-team All-PSAC.
Eric Glover-Williams, senior DB: Second-team All-PSAC.
Khadir Roberts, junior DB: Second-team All-PSAC.
Jake Chapla, senior P/K: First-team All-PSAC (kicker) and second-team All-PSAC (punter).
Arcing through the lightly falling snow, Rivers’ pass soared toward the end zone. It wasn’t long enough for a touchdown, but it would have been enough for a first down to move the chains.
Litwin, of course, was on the receiving end of the pass, snagging the ball out of the air and getting a foot in bounds. Except only the screaming Slippery Rock sideline thought so.
Down by 43 points with just over a minute remaining in the game, the Slippery Rock season was over.
But not to Litwin.
Trusting his receiver, calling the official over, Lutz tossed a challenge flag onto the field. He was confident that his star receiver got a foot in bounds.
After a long pause, during which the referees discussed the play, the play stood as called. Incomplete pass.
An exasperated look crossed Litwin’s face before it was replaced by one of dejection. Slowly trudging off the snowy field, Wynn dashed forward, wrapping an arm around Litwin. Heads huddled together, the pair walked to the sideline.
“We’ll be back.”