With five starters sitting out due to injury and at least two more getting hurt along the way, the Slippery Rock University football team put together an impressive 37-25 win against the visiting Mercyhurst University Lakers to extend The Rock’s home winning streak to 20 consecutive games.
The Rock (4-1, 1-1) was looking to bounce back after their first loss of the season last weekend at California (Pa.) and The Lakers (2-3, 1-1) were looking to win their second straight game after topping Gannon in overtime last Saturday.
The Rock was missing four starters on defense and head coach Shawn Lutz knew the offense had to play well if they were going to win.
“With us having our best players out we needed to do something offensively,” Lutz said. “I like they way they stepped up tonight. We had a little lull in that second half. We didn’t play as well as we needed to I think as a whole football team. I’m still looking for that four quarter game from our football team.”
With All-Region senior running back Shamar Greene sidelined with a separated shoulder, true freshman Dontez Rash got the start in the backfield, the first of his collegiate career. Rash and The Rock offense started the game off with a bang, marching right down the field on their first possession and capping the drive off with a Rash touchdown, his first of the night giving The Rock a 7-0 lead.
Rash said he knew he would have to carry the load with Greene out, but was not nervous when his number was called.
“I really wasn’t nervous or anything because I have already played,” Rash said. “I was just happy to go out there and get the job done. That was my whole mentality. With Shamar out I knew I was the next man up so I just had to go get it.”
Mercyhurst would respond with a touchdown of their own on their ensuing drive, but the extra point was blocked by junior defensive end Marcus Martin and senior defensive back Kris Williams, who ran the ball all the way back for an SRU two-point conversion, leading to an SRU 9-6 lead. Martin finished with one sack and two tackles for loss, breaking the all-time SRU record for tackles for loss with 61.
Martin and company hit the Mercyhurst quarterback all night long and several times he came up limping.
“It’s like chopping a tree down, every hits it takes it gets weaker and weaker and that’s the same thing that happened to him,” Martin said. “You could tell, beginning of the game he was playing really well and then towards the end he was getting more iffy in the pocket and wasn’t really comfortable and it just takes a toll on a quarterback.”
“Everybody wants sacks out there,” Lutz said. “I’m not saying sacks are overrated, our objective is distressing the quarterback. If they can get hits on the quarterback and get pressure the quarterback’s going to make bad plays.”
The Green and White passing game would strike next, with graduate transfer senior quarterback Don King III throwing a 17 yard touchdown pass to junior receiver Marcus Johnson for a Rock 16-6 first quarter lead.
The Lakers would add a field goal on their next drive and The Rock would again drive the length of the field on their first possession of the second quarter. This time however, SRU turned the ball over on downs at the goal-line and Mercyhurst took over at their own one yard line. After an unsuccessful quarterback sneak, junior cornerback Titus Howard came on a blitz and sacked the Mercyhurst quarterback in the endzone for a Slippery Rock safety. Howard had a big day for The Rock, with 1.5 sacks and a late interception.
The Rock would add 13 more points before the half with another Rash touchdown and two long field goals by freshman kicker Jake Chapla. Chapla hit from 45 yards and then from 51, the longest Slippery Rock field goal since 2003. Chapla also attempted a 53 yard field goal that missed wide left as time expired in the first half with a 31-9 Rock lead.
The Lakers began to take advantage of the undermanned Rock defense in the third quarter, scoring 14 unanswered points. The defense was without starting senior defensive end Cody Conway, senior starting linebackers Bob Vernick and John Conglose and sophomore back-up linebacker Cody Allen. Senior linebacker Anthony Zappone also saw limited time in the second half due to injury.
Starting in their places were senior defensive lineman Tony Twillie II, senior linebacker Erik Johnson and freshman linebacker Patrick Minenock. Johnson and Twillie finished first and second on the team in total tackles with nine and eight, respectively.
The comeback was short-lived for Mercyhurst however, as King added one final passing touchdown to junior receiver Cornelius Raye.
Rash finished with 102 rushing yards, the first 100 yard game of his career, and two touchdowns, King finished 29-38 for 310 yards and two touchdowns, and Raye pulled in nine catches for 126 yards and one score.
Raye and seniors Leroy McClain (six catches, 49 yards) and Drew Scales (eight catches, 72 yards) all had big nights catching the ball out of the slot. Raye said King and the receivers have become very comfortable in the offense together.
All-Conference center Joe Loschiavo was knocked out of the game early in the first half with a foot injury and did not return. Senior Dean Ketterer replaced Loschiavo and played the rest of the game.
The Rock will try to get healthy this week as they face one of their toughest tests of the season next week on the road at rival Indiana (Pa.) University. That game could go a long way to deciding who will end up winning the PSAC-West division.