Facing a monstrous day from Gannon’s nation-leading running back Marc Jones, the Slippery Rock University football team stopped Jones dead in his tracks late in the fourth quarter on a fourth-and-two to preserve the Rock’s 49-45 win.
Jones ran for 355 yards on Saturday, part of Gannon’s 399 yards rushing against the Rock defense, the most rushing yards given up by SRU since 2012. For perspective, The Rock gave up 907 rushing yards in 11 games last year, and 399 on Saturday alone.
Jones, who is listed as 5-11 and 225 pounds, spent most of his day running over Rock defenders of all sizes.
“He’s gotta be 250, that guy, I don’t know if we got a good hit on him all day,” Slippery Rock head coach Shawn Lutz said. “He’s got a motor man, he just plays his butt off and he is a great, great football player.”
Despite another lackluster performance from the defense, The Rock was again propelled by proficient performances on the offense.
Senior quarterback Tanner Garry recorded the second-most passing yards in a single game in SRU history with 518, and had five passing touchdowns. In Garry’s 33 completions, he threw the ball to seven different receivers, three of which had 100-plus yard games, and two of which had double digit catches.
“In the first couple of games we’ve had, obviously Milly and Marcus have been making huge plays,” Garry said. “I have 100 percent confidence in every wide receiver, tight end, or whoever is on the field. Whatever look we get, whoever is open, I’m going to get the ball to them, no matter who it is.”
Among Garry’s five passing touchdowns, all but one ended up in the hands of senior wide receiver Marcus Johnson. Johnson tied his own SRU record for single-game touchdown catches with four, and moved up to second all-time on the Rock’s receiving touchdowns record book with 22.
“I just play, Whatever leverage they give me, I just play” Johnson said. Lutz echoed that sentiment by saying that he “hasn’t seen” Johnson be covered yet this year. “There is no receiver that can high point a ball like him.”
Johnson also ran another kickoff back for a touchdown, this time from 88 yards out. This was the first time a Slippery Rock player has recorded multiple kickoff-return touchdowns in a season since DJ Flick in 2000.
“I go hard every play, every practice. Every play is full-out. On special teams everything’s gotta be full-out and we win.” Johnson said.
Slippery Rock had a surprising performance handed in by senior wide receiver Andrew Bridgeforth in two facets of the game. Bridgeforth had a combined 133 receiving yards in his last two years playing for the Green and White (67 in 2016 and 66 in 2013), and recorded 115 receiving yards on Saturday alone.
Lutz was delighted that “a player like Bridge is finally getting the credit, notoriety and publicity that he deserves.”
“I feel really proud of my team, we’re all relentless dogs out here, we fought and I did my job, I’m happy,” Bridgeforth said. “I knew it was going to happen eventually, just stay patient and keep working as hard as I can and step up when my number is called.”
Bridgeforth also recorded three tackles on special teams, including forcing a clutch fumble on a kickoff with less than 12 minutes to play which led to a Slippery Rock field goal to put the Rock up 42-38.
“That’s just will, putting it on the line for my brothers. I know they would do the same thing for me,” Bridgeforth said. “Everybody gave everything they had, that’s why we’re 4-0”
Bridgeforth’s effort on special teams certainly did not go unnoticed, as Lutz described him as “the most exciting guy going down the field on kickoff.”
Gannon scored with 2:38 left to play, unsurprisingly coming from Jones, to put the Golden Knights up 45-42. Knowing that his team needed a drive to win, Garry was filled with determination that his offense was going to regain the lead.
“I said to my teammates that they gave us too much time,” Garry said “we knew as an offense that if we do what we are supposed to do, we will move the ball down the field and score.”
Garry was right, and he connected with Johnson for the fourth time on a 73 yard touchdown catch with 40 seconds left, to put the Rock up 49-45.
The next drive, Gannon pushed the ball all the way down to the Rock 28. Gannon had a fourth and two, and went with their horse Jones who had over 400 total yards on the day. For the first time all afternoon, the Green and White defense held, preserving Slippery Rock’s 49-45 victory, moving them to 4-0 (1-0) on the year.
“It just shows you that you can’t stop, you can’t give up. All day we were so bad against the run, they went with their bread-and-butter and we make a stop,” Lutz said. “You can never give up on kids. A win is a win.”
Other notable offensive performances were headlined by senior wide receiver Milly Raye, who caught 11 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown. Running backs freshman Chacar Berry and senior Isiah Neely ran for 49 and 42 yards respectively.
“I love it, we have a two-headed monster between them,” Lutz said “we have two good ones and we’ll go from there.”
Defensively, junior safety Tavarus Sample led the team with 10 tackles, including recovering the fumble that Bridgefoth caused on special teams. Two senior team captains recorded seven tackles apiece, Defensive back Delmar Henderson and Marcus Martin. Martin added to his Division II record for tackles for loss with 0.5 on Saturday, upping his career total to 80.
Freshman linebacker Trysten McDonald also had a standout performance, recording seven tackles, three of which for a loss. McDonald only had two tackles for loss in his career coming into the game.
Sophomore kicker Jake Chapla also had a productive day for The Rock, making his only attempted field goal and recording three touchbacks on kickoff. SRU had several opportunities to go to Chapla for field goals in the first half, but elected not to, which Lutz attributed as “a mistake on me” (Slippery Rock only converted one of three fourth-down conversions.)
Slippery Rock faces a daunting task this week, squaring off against #5 California (Pa.) in the annual salute to veterans game. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium.