Winning is never easy, and that statement exemplifies the 2017 Rock football squad. The Green and White defeated the 3-2 Mercyhurst Lakers 31-28 to move to 6-0 on the year in their fourth one-score victory this year.
Slippery Rock was hampered by injuries, missing team captain senior offensive lineman Ian Park. In addition to Park, Senior running back Isiah Neely and senior quarterback Tanner Garry were both hurt during the game but came back in the second half.
“I came back for the team man, the team needed me, and I needed the team.” Neely said, who finished with 93 yards on the ground and 44 receiving.
Even without Park, the Rock offensive line was able to produce 136 yards rushing, SRU’s most rushing yards in a non-overtime conference game this year.
“Our line is resilient, they’re tough,” Neely said. “That’s the thing I like best, they communicate before each play.”
For the second straight week, The Rock was shut out in the first quarter, although this week only down 7-0, opposed to the 17 point deficit they faced versus California (Pa.) last week. However, less than two minutes into the second quarter, lightning finally struck when Garry found Sportcenter’s favorite player, senior wideout Milly Raye for a 27-yard touchdown pass, capping off an immaculate 99-yard drive.
“It says a lot about our offense, we were really able to run the ball today which I liked,” Said SRU head coach Shawn Lutz. “Overall, we did a pretty good job offensively.”
Garry once again impressed, slinging 26 passes for 335 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions. The game moved Garry’s totals up to 2028 yards and 22 touchdowns on the year, both good for number three in the nation.
After another Mercyhurst touchdown, the Rock responded with another passing touchdown, this time going from Garry to senior Andrew Bridgeforth for eight yards on a slant. The score would hold at 14-14 for the half.
Slippery Rock’s first drive of the second half led to their first lead when sophomore tight end Dylan Stapleton caught a four-yard pass for his first career touchdown reception.
Mercyhurst answered back right before the fourth quarter with a touchdown of their own. Although the Lakers ran for two touchdowns on the day, they only gained a paltry 66 yards on the ground, almost only half of their season average of 102 yards per game. Garrett Owens, Mercyhurst’s leading rusher, measures at 6’3″, making him quite the tough target to take down.
“Hit [Owens], wrap up and tackle him,” freshman linebacker Tim Vernick said. “We knew he would be able to break through tackles if we try to arm tackle him.”
“The biggest thing is that we wanted to make sure we stop the run,” Lutz said. “We did a better job, but our guys hung in there.”
With the game tied in the fourth quarter, Slippery Rock looked to their hero last week, sophomore kicker Jake Chapla to give them the lead. Facing a 45 yarder and kicking into the wind, none of it mattered to Chapla, as he drilled the field goal to put SRU up 24-21 with 11 minutes left.
“He’s money, he can make it anywhere,” Lutz said.
Despite usual solid performances, there was one player that remained bottled up for the majority of the game, Division II’s leader in receiving yards, touchdowns and return touchdowns, senior wide receiver Marcus Johnson. That all changed with eight minutes left when the Mercyhurst defense finally broke, and Johnson went free for a 64-yard touchdown catch to pad the Rock’s lead 31-21.
Mercyhurst did not go quietly as they scored another touchdown four minutes later to shave SRU’s lead back down to three points.
Slippery Rock got the ball back in the lead with 4:23 to play and needed to burn some clock, something that is very unusual for the high-octane Slippery Rock offense.
“We practice going fast, going slow, because you never know what you’re going to need in a game,” Neely said.
On a third-and-eight with just two minutes remaining, offensive coordinator Justin Roper dialed in a risky pass play that won the Rock the game, as Milly Ray received Garry’s pass for a 26-yard gain and a first down, allowing the Green and White to run out the clock, and escape Erie with a three-point victory, their sixth win and a rise to the number nine ranking nationally.
“We didn’t play a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination,” Lutz said. “Thank god for Marcus Johnson, and we came off with a win.”
Up next for the Rock is an absolute perfect storm. Saturday, October 14th will not only be homecoming, but the second ever showdown with rival no. 3 Indiana (Pa.) in which both squads are ranked in the top 10. The game will be streamed on ESPN3 and the ESPN app as part of a Division II showcase.