With the 38-42 fall to Bloomsburg in the PSAC Championship game still weighing heavily on their minds, the Slippery Rock football team’s spirits lifted as they received the fifth seed for Super Region One in the NCAA Division II playoffs.
This will be the program’s first appearance in the national playoffs since 1999 and the fourth in head coach George Mihalik’s career. They will face fourth seed Winston-Salem State University Saturday at the Bowman Gray Stadium in North Carolina.
Mihalik, who was recently named PSAC West Coach of the Year, is confident that the team’s loss to Bloomsburg has strengthened their bond and says they will be ready to face WSSU.
“We call ourselves a brotherhood,” Mihalik said. “Not only in times of success, but in times of defeat. Our guys are anxious and they’re ready to play.”
Before the 24 teams advancing to NCAA playoffs were announced, many members of the team took to social media and asked for former teammates, Derek Durand and Zach Sheridan, to be with the team during the stressful time.
“Derek Durand and Zach Sheridan continue to be a part of this football team and this brotherhood,” Mihalik said. “The players haven’t forgotten them and I definitely haven’t forgotten them. They were with us.”
Winston-Salem dropped to the fourth seed after being unable to compete in the CIAA Championship game. The game was cancelled due to an attack on Rams’ quarterback, Rudy Johnson, by players from Virginia State University at a luncheon prior to the game.
The incident resulted in the cancellation of the CIAA Championship game and Virginia State being stripped of their eligibility to be selected to advance into playoffs.
“It’s very unfortunate that that happened at a celebration event,” Mihalik said. “Without knowing the specifics behind it, it’s tough to say what actually happened. I don’t think Virginia State being banned helped us in any way. We would have been selected regardless because of our strength in schedule.”
Johnson suffered injuries to his head, back and ribs during the assault. Despite the injuries, Johnson, while wearing sunglasses to conceal the cuts below his bruised right eye, announced at a press conference Monday Nov. 18 that he is confident he will play against Slippery Rock.
If he plays, Johnson will go head-to-head against PSAC-West Offensive Player of the Year senior quarterback Nigel Barksdale.
“Getting that award means a lot,” Barksdale said. “I worked hard to come back from an ACL tear. I took care of the mental half of the game during the offseason so I could really understand the plays. To come back and break all these record and win these awards says a lot about my offensive line and receivers as well.”
No matter who starts at quarterback for WSSU, they will have to face a Rock defense that is welcoming back redshirt senior linebacker Quindell Dean onto the field.
Dean was forced to miss the PSAC title game after a targeting penalty was called on him during the game against Seton Hill Nov. 9.
“I’m truly blessed to get this opportunity,” Dean said. “Never in a million years did I think I would receive a call for targeting, but I did. I felt like I let my team down because I couldn’t play last week.”
Dean has been one of SRU’s top defensive players, totaling 71 tackles on the season, 40 of which were solo, as well as one interception.
“My brothers all came to me and told me to keep my head up and that I would get to play again and I kept believing them,” Dean said. “Now we’re about to play for a chance to move closer to the national championship. I know my Rock boys won’t let this opportunity pass.”
Mihalik said he’s ready to have the senior captain get back on the field.
“It’s definitely a plus to have Quindell back,” Mihalik said. “The players, coaches and everyone are all happy to have him back. He’s one of the leaders and he’s a playmaker.”
Slippery Rock’s offense hope to battle against Winston-Salem by putting up numbers similar to what they have all season.
On average, SRU posts 566.2 total offensive yards per game, 372.55 passing yards and 193.6 rushing yards.
“All we needed was a chance,” Barksdale said. “I’m taking the loss to Bloomsburg as a blessing in disguise. This chance going into the playoffs is what we wanted. We have to take advantage of it.”
Mihalik has confidence in his offense’s ability to put up numbers but feels there are still issues to address before Saturday’s game.
“Our offense can handle whatever situation comes our way,” Mihalik said. “But we can’t have turnovers. We have to eliminate them.”
Barksdale, redshirt senior wide receiver John Schademan and redshirt freshman offensive tackle Cory Tucker were selected to the First Team Offense of the All-PSAC West.
Dean, redshirt senior defensive linemen Derek Walker and Tony Papley, senior linebacker Gary Allen, redshirt senior defensive back Anthony Saunders, junior defensive back Austin Miele, and senior punter James McCombie were selected to the First Team Defense.
Slippery Rock also had five players make the All-PSAC West Second Team. Redshirt junior running back Teddy Blakeman, redshirt freshman running back Shamar Greene, junior tight end Julian Harrell, sophomore wide receiver Jaimire Dutrieuille and junior defensive lineman Matt Peacock were selected to represent SRU.
The Green and White will hope to rebound from their setback against Bloomsburg and make a stand in the national playoffs.
“We’re all very excited,” Dean said. “The Rock is going to shock the world.”
The winner of the game between Winston-Salem and Slippery Rock will head to No. 1 seed Shepherd University Nov. 30.
“It’s a one game season now,” Mihalik said. “Win and continue, it’s all on the line. It will be a very physical football game.”