Two top ten teams, homecoming and the biggest rivalry in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) are the ingredients for this Saturday’s football game between No. 3 Indiana (Pa.) and No. 9 Slippery Rock. This will mark only the second meeting out of the 92 games between the two schools that both teams are ranked in the top ten nationally.
Following the theme for the season, Slippery Rock won a nail-biter last week against the Mercyhurst Lakers in Erie, 31-28.
“I’ve taken a couple years off of my life this season, I pace pretty regularly on that sideline. We’ve seen it all,” Slippery Rock head coach Shawn Lutz said. “As long as we keep coming out on the winning side, I’ll take it.”
While SRU’s defense held the Lakers to 28 points last week, they have struggled thus far on the season. The Green and White rank in the bottom half of the PSAC in both scoring defense (31.2 points per game) and total defense (399.5 yards per game).
This will be by far the biggest test for a Rock defense that starts five freshman, including all three linebackers, as IUP ranks first in the PSAC in total offense (504.7 yards per game) and number three in the nation.
“I don’t know what weaknesses they have,” Lutz said. “They are a dang good football team.”
Headlining the Crimson Hawks offensive attack is dual-threat quarterback Lenny Williams. Williams is fifth in the PSAC in total offense (261.8 yards per game), and is also the most efficient passer in the conference, completing 67.4 percent of his attempts. Although Williams’ rushing game has taken a step back (21.8 yards per game, opposed to last years’ 66 per game), his mobility is always a tricky thing to handle.
“He’s one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in all of Division II football, ” Lutz said. “The thing that makes him so challenging is that he has developed into a great throwing quarterback. We gotta keep him in the backfield, we can’t let him get out.”
Though Williams may be proficient, he has nothing on the Rock’s senior quarterback Tanner Garry. Garry tops the PSAC in both passing yards (2028) and touchdowns (22); those numbers also rank Garry second in the country in both categories, and he is also third nationally in points responsible for (132). Coming into the year, Lutz described Garry as a “game manager”, although his tune seems to have changed due to Garry’s performance.
“He’s a leader. There are guys in our program that have maybe thrown a little bit better, and definitely some who have run better, but he is a born leader,” Lutz said. “I love his competitiveness.”
Although Garry has started to find more variety in his passing game, dishing the ball to senior Andrew Bridgeforth (11 catches in the past three games), Sophomore tight end Dylan Stapleton (10 catches in last three games) and sophomore Mike Merhaut (six catches in three games); it is no secret where the crux of the offense lies– in the senior duo of Milly Raye and Marcus Johnson.
Johnson and Raye have combined for 1343 receiving yards on the year, placing them second and fourth in the PSAC, respectively. Johnson also has already hauled in nine touchdown catches on the year, tied for first in the nation. With at least five games remaining in their careers, both Johnson and Raye have their sights set on an all-time SRU record. SRU’s all-time career receiving touchdowns record stands at 28– Johnson has 23 and Raye has 22.
The most forgotten third of a football game may be where the difference is made on Saturday, special teams. Slippery Rock leads the PSAC in punt returns and is fourth in kickoff returns, while IUP ranks in the middle of the conference for both statistics.
Slippery rock also has the edge in the kicking game, as sophomore kicker Jake Chapla repeated as PSAC-West special teams player of the week after nailing a 45-yard field goal which turned out to be the winning score for SRU last week.
“We have to dominate special teams in this football game. You gotta win field positions and make them drive, you can’t give Lenny Williams a short field.” Lutz said.
After another half tackle for loss last week, senior defensive end Marcus Martin moved up to 17.5 on the year, and 83.5 for his career.
Martin still needs 3.5 sacks to tie the all-divisions sack record, and IUP has been the only PSAC squad to shut out Martin in the sack department two years straight.
Kickoff is slated for 2 p.m. at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium. The game will be broadcast on the ESPN app and ESPN 3 as part of the NCAA Division II showcase.
“For everybody to experience something like that, I just think it’s fun for the school and fun for the students. If you’re not doing anything on Saturday, why wouldn’t you want to be a part of the game day festivities?” Lutz said. “If you don’t like football, come listen to the band or come out and tailgate, it’s all there. If we get a win, it will be icing on the cake.”