After losing a close 42-34 contest at Kutztown, the Slippery Rock University football team was excluded from the NCAA Division II Super Region One bracket and finishes their season at 8-3.
“Anytime you get a winning season, a lot of people look at that as a W. The problem is, and maybe this is just the competitor in me, you knew there were games on your schedule you should have won, and that was the difference,” Senior quarterback Tanner Garry said. “Don’t get me wrong, I had the time of my life, it was a great season, 8-3 is nothing to be ashamed of.”
When the postseason was so close, it’s easy to focus on the disappointment of not furthering the season. For a team that entered the year with uncertainty at many offensive positions, and the entire defense a huge question mark, and 8-3 final standing is something that should be appreciated.
“I was really thinking it was going to be, I hate to say it, a rebuilding process,” Slippery Rock head coach Shawn Lutz said. “But I can’t have any regrets, I am most proud of our football team for the will to come back and never give up. They always continue to keep fighting.”
Slippery Rock entered the season after losing ten defensive starters, their starting quarterback, the school’s all-time leading rusher in Shamar Greene, and all-American tackle Corey Tucker, among other losses. To say the least, there was plenty of uncertainty for the 2017 squad. Despite that, SRU won the season opener at Kentucky State and followed that up with a win over no. 24 West Chester.
SRU rattled off two more wins before squaring off against no. 5 California (Pa.). In a nationally televised game and SRU’s first overtime game in years, Slippery Rock pulled out a huge victory against the Vulcans, with sophomore kicker Jake Chapla nailing a field goal in OT for a 47-44 Rock win.
“Being down 17-0 to a team that was ranked number five in the country, to battle back and see Marcus Martin make that play, and Chapla kicks that thing,” Lutz said. “Seeing the guys on the sideline kneeling and grabbing hands, that was the best thing that happened this season.”
After another win at Mercyhurst, SRU hit a two-game skid that included a loss to arch-rival no. 3 Indiana (Pa.) in the most attended game at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium ever, and a disappointing road loss to Edinboro. SRU turned things around on senior day, when the won back the milk jug in a contest against Clarion, putting down the eagles 24-9.
“Senior day, [seeing] Marcus Martin break the record, in front of the home crowd and returning a touchdown. You can’t write a better script than that.” Lutz said.
A 77-38 thrashing of Seton hill lead into the regular season finale at Kutztown. SRU battled back from a 35-17 halftime deficit but ultimately fell to the Golden Bears, ending the season at 8-3.
“What stings is that West Chester is 8-3 and they are in the playoffs, and we are 8-3 and we beat them head to head,” Lutz said.
One of the biggest takeaways from this season is the amount of SRU and national records that were broken by the Green and White this season.
“From a record standpoint, I don’t think any team has ever had some of these accolades, and they are going to keep coming,” Lutz said.
The awards and recognition are of course headlined by senior defensive end, Marcus Martin. Martin’s accolades are almost infinite, but just this season, he broke the NCAA Division II all-time tackles for loss record and the NCAA all-divisions all-time sacks record. In addition, Martin was named the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) West defensive player of the year. Martin was named the freshman of the year in 2014 and won the defensive player of the year three times after that. Martin is the first PSAC player ever to win four player of the year awards. Martin has also received invites to the Senior Bowl and the NFLPA collegiate bowl, two of the biggest showcases for college players who hope to make it to the NFL.
Offensively, SRU was surprised with some outstanding contributions that vaulted themselves into the SRU record books. Seniors quarterback Tanner Garry, and wide receiver duo Marcus Johnson and Milly Raye all put themselves into Green and White history.
“Offensively, it’s amazing how well we passed the ball to our playmakers this year,” Lutz said.
Garry was perhaps the biggest surprise of the season, as he hadn’t started a football game since 2012 at Fort Cherry High School. Garry led Division II in passing yards with 3,522 yards. Garry also broke four Slippery Rock single-season records: completions (268), touchdowns (32), passing average (320.2) and 300-yard games (eight).
“Tanner Garry, what he accomplished was amazing. After not starting a game for six years, then leading Division II in passing is outstanding.” Lutz said.
Garry was helped the entire season by the outstanding senior duo of Johnson and Raye. Johnson broke the SRU single-season record for all-purpose yards with 1,993. Johnson’s 14 touchdown catches led the PSAC and pushed him to 28 receiving touchdowns, tied for the SRU all-time lead. Raye moved up to second all-time at SRU in receiving yards (2,437) and receptions (191.) Despite those accolades, the biggest takeaway from Raye’s season is that he was featured on SportsCenter nine out of the 11 games this season, becoming a “friend of the program.”
“Anyone can make the big plays when you are up by 25 points,” Garry said. “but having two people like Marcus and Milly, two people who I know I can rely on if the game is on the line, that gives you as a quarterback a lot of confidence.”
Including Garry, Raye, and Johnson, the SRU offense landed six members on the PSAC all-conference teams. Senior guard Ian Park garnered first-team honors after transferring in from Northwestern. Junior tackle Steve “bigs” Gaviglia earned his second-straight all-PSAC second-team selection. Gaviglia and Park were part of an offensive line that only gave up 21 sacks in 11 games.
“If your O-line doesn’t like you, they’re not going to sell out trying to protect you,” Garry said. “It’s something special when you have an O-line that genuinely gets upset when they let up a sack.”
Senior running back Isiah “juice” Neely also garnered his second all-PSAC selection, being picked the second-team running back after eclipsing 2,000 rushing yards for his career.
Special teams was a strong suit for the Rock the entire year, and it showed on the all-PSAC squads. Johnson was named the all-PSAC first-team return specialist after returning two kickoffs for touchdowns and adding a punt-return touchdown. Chapla pulled double duty as the second-team kicker and punter after making 11 field goals this year, including going 4-6 on field goals longer than 40 yards. On the punting side, Chapla averaged 38.6 yards per punt.
Slippery Rock will move on to recruiting for the winter season before National Letter of Intent day on February 7th.
“The program is at a good place in terms of the attitude of the team, we are ready to get to recruiting,” Lutz said. “I got to give credit to the 13 seniors we had, the difference this year with the team chemistry we had was [that] nobody was pointing fingers.”