Though The Rock has two games left to play this season, the first year of the Shawn Lutz era has been filled with heartbreak.
In their worst season since going 6-5 in 2012, multiple Rock football winning streaks and traditions have been ended, and some major players were lost in the process.
“We have high expectations,” Lutz said. “We have high expectations. I’ve been a part of the program for over 20 years, and the standard is still the process of us playing like champions.”
While the standard is to play as champions, the outcome will be far from it. The Rock will not play in the conference championship game or have the opportunity to play in the national playoffs for the first time since 2013. Whether it was the weaknesses of the Rock or an increase in strength of other teams, The Rock’s postseason hopes were stopped by PSAC West foes.
All four of the Slippery Rock’s losses came from conference opponents: California (PA), Indiana (PA), Edinboro, and Clarion. The last time SRU lost to that many conference teams was 2010. Three of those came within the last three weeks. The Rock hasn’t seen a conference losing streak that bad since 2009, which was also the last time they lost to Clarion.
Lutz said that his team’s ranking is disappointing because they had opportunities to win their last two games against Edinboro and Clarion, but he accepts that the record shows how they rank in the conference and he knew that he would get some of the West teams’ best games.
“We have a big bullseye on our back,” Lutz said. “Everybody wants to beat you.”
This was not a senior class used to being beaten. Ironically, 2013 was the year that this season’s senior class came to be. The same group that had never lost a game at home, up until Edinboro ruined their homecoming two weeks ago, witnessed the rise and fall of the longest home winning streak in division II football, the first homecoming loss since losing to the Fighting Scots eight seasons ago, and the first time the Milk Jug would not be coming back to Slippery Rock to sit in the football office in Morrow Field House.
While many staff changes were made, many involuntary personnel changes were made to the Slippery Rock depth chart. This season the Rock was plagued by injuries.
The Rock’s defense rarely had all of its key players on the field at the same time. All-region senior defensive lineman Joe Phillips was absent in the opening weeks of the season due to injury. The Rock would also miss the presence of all-region senior linebacker Bob Vernick and redshirt junior John Conglose later in the season. The Rock defense’s most recent loss was redshirt senior safety Kevin Green.
While the defense suffered some losses, none were as crucial as what SRU lost on offense. The Rock has been without three of their most renowned players for significant portions of the season.
“We came in the season with an inexperienced offensive line, and Joe Loschiavo, the All-American center, hasn’t played most of the season,” Lutz said. “Shamar got hurt in the California game, losing one of the best running backs ever to play college football. And then, Don King will be out for his second game due to concussion.”
The absence of Loschiavo, who may return in the last game of the season for senior day, to assist and lead an offensive line, who Lutz said struggled throughout the year, could have something to do with loss of two of the biggest components in the offense.
On Monday, SRU announced that they would be ending the college career of Shamar Greene, the program’s all-time leading rusher. Lutz said Greene, who finished a prolific career with 4,275 yards, will focus on rehabilitating his shoulder in hopes to better prepare him for a post-collegiate career in football.
Greene said it was one of the hardest decisions he has ever had to make. If SRU would have made the playoffs,Greene said he would’ve returned, but is deciding to focus on himself since that chance is long gone. He is proud of the legacy he is leaving behind.
“At the end of the day, I did what I came here to do,” Greene said. “I have three rings and I’m the all time leading usher in basically three years. In my opinion, I’m leaving here a legend.”
DK3, the graduate transfer from Sam Houston State, came into the program creating controversy. He won the starting quarterback job in a long, hard fought battle that resulted in the departure of veteran quarterback Zack Newsock from the Rock in his senior year. Lutz said he has no regrets about the team’s decision to start King.
While being led by King, the Rock did lose to IUP and Cal, but has had a pretty efficient season ranking in the top ten in school history in completions and passing touchdowns in a season.
“I hope to have him back in the last game,” Lutz said. “Don’s a great person and a great quarterback. We got to get him back and go forward with him.”
With so many key injuries and the absence of post-season play, Lutz and his team is playing for Rock Pride. Lutz said he is still fighting for a winning season despite this year being a down year. Though he has not led his team to live up to the normal Rock football standard, he said he will not change the expectation of the team.
The Rock has two games left to play this season. Though Lutz is still focusing on ending this season on a high note, he knows where he has to look to if he wants to attempt to get back to what Rock football has been known for.
“We are going to continue to recruit quality young men and guys who love to play the game of football,” Lutz said. “We have to have good team chemistry and want to play relentless football. Every great program goes through this adversity, and we just need to get better.”