After climbing to the number 25 spot in the Division II national poll, the Slippery Rock University football team will host its second-straight home game against a struggling 0-2 Lock Haven team.
Slippery Rock has historically dominated Lock Haven, holding a 32-0-1 series lead in the past 33 years. Rock football head coach Shawn Lutz explained how history doesn’t matter for this week’s game.
“We’ve had success against Lock Haven in the past, but anything can happen over the course of a game. We have to jump on them right off the bat and knock them out of the game early. If you let them hang around, it could be a struggle,” Lutz said. “We can’t let them run the football, and we can’t let them get big plays.”
Lock Haven has only scored six points so far this season, three each against Saint Francis (Pa.) and Edinboro.
Slippery Rock had about as opposite a week as you could have, winning a 49-42 thriller against no. 24 West Chester last week, and the team was feeling the aftershock of such a tough game this week.
“It was such a physical game, we had a flat practice on Tuesday. They are a little bit emotionally shocked right now, but we will get it ready to go. That’s what we do every week.” Lutz said.
One of the major reasons for Slippery Rock’s success has been stellar play out of their starting quarterback, senior Tanner Garry. Through two games, Garry leads the nation in both touchdown passes and points responsible for.
“He did a great job at not panicking when feeling a little bit of pressure,” Lutz said. “He just steps up in the pocket, he knows he isn’t going anywhere because he’s not a great runner. He threw the ball out of bounds a few times, his decision making is above-and-beyond what I thought it would be at this point.”
Not all offensive credit goes to the quarterback though, as Slippery Rock truly has found an outstanding duo in a pair of senior wide receivers, Marcus Johnson and Milly Raye.
“We have a two-headed monster with Milly Raye and Marcus Johnson” Lutz said.
After last week’s stellar performances, Raye was named the PSAC-West offensive Player of the Week, while Johnson was named the PSAC-West special teams Player of the Week. Johnson currently leads the nation in a slew of categories, including receiving touchdowns, all-purpose yards and total touchdowns.
One of the few downsides on the offensive side of the ball for the Rock this year has been on the ground. Through two games, the team has only mustered 221 total rushing yards, an average of 87 a game. The Rock is usually a rushing powerhouse, having averaged 142 yards per game in 2016, and 257.7 in 2015.
“Our primary focus is running the football. It’s not good enough and it needs to get better,” Lutz said. “The struggles have been more about execution. Guys are missing guys that they are supposed to block, we gotta be better at execution in blocking.”
Despite a somewhat-poor showing on the ground so far this young season, Slippery Rock’s offensive line has garnered high praise from their coach for their pass protection.
“They have done an outstanding job in pass-protection. Tanner has only been sacked once this year. We want them to execute in the run game as well as they did in the passing game.”
On the defensive side, Slippery Rock is going to look even younger than they did the first two weeks. Junior safety Kyle Hall will be out for the game, giving some more freshman chances to make contributions.
“I’m excited to see a lot of our young guys play on defense,” Lutz said. “We have a lot of them, they just have to start going a little bit quicker and executing fundamentals. The talent is there, they just need to understand that the time is now.”
Of course, the Slippery Rock defense is not going to be all young, as the most experienced player in the PSAC (39 straight starts) will be looking to break records again on Saturday. There is not much that Senior defensive end Marcus Martin has not done yet in his career, but Saturday he looks to topple some of the most impressive division II records that he hasn’t yet touched. Martin is only .5 tackles for loss away from tying the DII record, and only 1.5 sacks away from tying the record. With a lot of those records primed to fall this weekend, Lutz explained how Martin is going to stay on-track on Saturday.
“He is the kind of guy we may never have again with his pedigree. He just has his ways to get better. Look at what he does each and every game. He single-handedly gives us a chance to win each week with his splash plays, whether those be a sack, a tackle for loss or a forced fumble,” Lutz Said. “He can single-handedly win football games.”
One big facet for Slippery Rock that has provided both stability and game-changing plays has been special teams. The Rock is tied for the nation’s lead in punt return touchdowns, kick return touchdowns, and extra point percentage.
“Having Johnson and Raye return for us adds another dimension to the return game. You don’t kick to those guys, so you have to either kick it short or risk them taking it. Special teams is a chess match that we are winning.”
Fans should wear white this for the game this week, as it is the white-out game for the Green and White.
Slippery Rock will kick off against Lock Haven at 6 p.m., at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium.