Rock head football coach Shawn Lutz and his team put their home winning streak on the line this weekend to open up conference play against undefeated Gannon University.
Western division play seems like it can give SRU a challenge this season. No. 10 Slippery Rock (3-0, 0-0) and Gannon (3-0, 0-0) are two of the six Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) West schools that are currently undefeated. Lutz said the Golden Knights’ success comes from some similarities to The Rock.
“Every game is going to be a dogfight,” Lutz said. “Gannon, at least defensively, is a very physical football team. They are good against the run.”
The Golden Knights have held its opponents to 113.3 yards and five touchdowns on the ground this season. Senior defensive back Mike Zanders II and sophomore linebacker Anthony Howard have made the biggest contributions to the defensive run-stoping. In Gannon’s overtime win over Bloomsburg University (2-1, 0-0) last Saturday, Zanders recorded 12 tackles, 1.5 for a loss, and Howard recorded 8 tackles, 2 for a loss, of his own.
SRU has held its opponents to 45.3 rushing yards a game and only three touchdowns. The Rock’s defensive line is led by conference record-holder, redshirt junior Marcus Martin and is backed up by a tough veteran linebacker corp that consists of the team’s leading tacklers, redshirt senior Anthony Zappone and senior Bob Vernick.
The highly-praised Rock defensive front may face its biggest challenge on the ground this weekend against a team that averages 241.7 yards rushing a game.
“I think we match up pretty darn good,” Lutz said. “They have a quarterback that just likes to run. If teams likes to run the ball, I love to play them. That’s our foundation.”
While the Golden Knights’ redshirt sophomore quarterback Zach Phillips struggles to throw the ball, completing less than 50 percent of his passes this season, he makes up with it on the ground as the team’s leading rusher. Phillips has 333 yards on the ground and rushed for all of Gannon’s touchdowns this season. He will face a challenge this weekend against a strong Rock defense.
Rock starting quarterback Don King III is coming off of a career performance against Lock Haven University (0-3, 0-0). King completed 33-49 passes for 411 yards and three touchdowns. He connected with over 11 different Rock football players. He connected with last season’s leading receiver, redshirt junior Cornelius Raye, 11 times for 174 yards and two touchdowns and added another touchdown to the Rock’s all-purpose athlete senior wide receiver Drew Scales.
Lutz said he was impressed with King’s play, but it wasn’t unexpected. He just needed to get used to the team.
“What people have to understand is that Dante (Nania) wasn’t great last year for the first two or three games,” Lutz said. “When you’re coming in new, you have to get the trust of your teammates. You can practice all you want, but the game is where you figure it all out. I just think the receivers are getting comfortable with getting used to him, and he’s getting comfortable with them.”
Lutz said that King’s performance and the win over Lock Haven is what the team needed before going into PSAC West play.
Lutz said that even though it’s too early to say how good Gannon will truly be compared to other West schools like Califronia (Pa.) or Indiana (Pa.), he is taking Gannon just as seriously as he would take them.
“They are a fully-funded program that gets the most allowed scholarships in division II,” Lutz said. “I’ll be honest, I think they’re right at the top.”
This is only the beginning of a tough road of Western conference play for The Rock, but Coach Lutz embraces it. He said conference play is where teams find their identities and who they truly are.
The Rock will have the chance to reveal if they are a top contender for the PSAC West at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 24 at 6 p.m.