After barely escaping Gannon with a 49-45 win last Saturday, Slippery Rock faces an even more daunting task, playing host to the #5 California University of Pennsylvania Vulcans for Saturday’s salute to veterans and first responders.
California comes into the game 4-0 after beating Seton Hill 44-41 last week. Being the number five team in the country demands some respect, and SRU head football coach Shawn Lutz offered as to why the Vulcans have attained their high national ranking.
“They are the best team we are going to play so far. They have a lot of skill on offense and they fly around on defense,” Lutz said. “This is going to come down to who makes the least amount of mistakes.”
The biggest worry for Slippery Rock this year has been on the defensive side of the ball. The Green and White do hold the number one passing defense in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC), giving up only 175.3 yards through the air per game, even though they only have one interception on the year.
“Our statistical lead in passing defense is misleading, teams run the ball a ton against us.” Lutz said.
Conversely, Slippery Rock is deep in the cellar for run defense, ranking next-to-dead-last giving up 224.3 yards per game on the ground. Those numbers were certainly not helped by Gannon’s Marc Jones gaining an absurd 354 yards on the ground last week. This is unusual for The Rock, which has led the PSAC in rushing defense the past two years.
“Our defensive line has got to start coming through against the offensive lines. We have to tackle and shut down the run game. We haven’t been really getting blown off the ball this year, we just can’t tackle. We had at least 40 missed tackles last week alone.”
Slippery Rock will have starting middle linebacker Tim Vernick back for Saturday to assist in the run game, however.
A shining part of SRU’s game this year has been the offense. Despite the run game still lagging behind, averaging less than 100 yards per game, an SRU team has never started a year so proficiently through the air.
Senior quarterback Tanner Garry’s 1425 passing yards led the PSAC and are good for third in the country. Garry is also second in the country in passing touchdowns with 16 and points responsible for with 96. Coming into the year, Lutz described Garry as a “game manager”, but with such a prolific start, Garry has certainly played well-above that moniker.
“We’re only going to go as far as he takes us. Any champion football team has to have a good trigger-man,” Lutz said. “His poise and cool, calm and collected nature is amazing. No stage is too big for him.”
Of course, Garry isn’t doing it all on his own, his receiving corps has been nothing short of spectacular. With players like senior Andrew Bridgeforth (148 yards on nine catches) and junior Carnel Harley (6 catches for 129 yards and one touchdown) coming on to assist the duo of star seniors Marcus Johnson and Milly Raye, there is nothing but positives to look forward to for the Rock passing attack this year.
“Bridgeforth made some catches last week that were unreal. Dylan Stapleton has started to step up, we’re so explosive, we’re not going to let just Marcus and Milly beat you.”
Johnson continues to put up video game numbers on the year. Johnson leads the country in receiving touchdowns, already hauling in eight through four games, and is tied for the nations lead in total points scored (66) with Gannon’s Jones. Johnson is definitely a generational-player for SRU, and Lutz was clear about his impact.
“If it’s third and 15, [offensive coordinator] Roper can always call a throw to Marcus Johnson,” Lutz said. “He has made it that simple.”
Maybe the most interesting part of Saturday’s game could be the clash of special team’s powers. The Green and White lead the country in kickoff return yards, thanks in large part to Johnson’s 250 yards and two touchdowns. To counter that, California leads the PSAC in kickoff coverage with 11 touchbacks, which could keep the ball out of the hands of Johnson and Raye entirely. California also leads the conference in field goals (eight-for-eight) and PATs (19-for-19).
“The thing I think that might dictate this game is that they are really good on special teams. They fly around, they love to block punts. They come at you hard man.”
California is also second in the conference in both penalty yards (42.3 per game) and time of possession (33:15), two fronts which SRU has struggled with; the Rock averages 67 penalty yards per game and is dead last in time of possession (25:49).
Saturday’s game will be the third night game at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium this year, with kickoff slated for 6 p.m.