The Slippery Rock University football team was able to overcome a 21 point deficit in their 2018 season opener at home on Saturday afternoon defeating Kentucky State University 38-31.
“The reasons we won that game is because we refused to quit and give up and, you know what, we were more conditioned than they were,” SRU football head coach Shawn Lutz said.”You really look at their mannerisms, they were sucking wind, especially that defense.”
In a game riddled with question marks, big plays, and many injuries on both sides, The Rock was able to come out on top, despite possessing the ball for just 23:19 all day. Of those question marks was the first collegiate start of junior quarterback Andrew Koester who completed 14 passes on 26 attempts for 272 yards with three touchdowns and one interception.
Another piece to the new Rock offense was senior running back Wes Hills, a Division I transfer from the University of Delaware. Hills ran the ball 21 times gaining 164 yards in the process coming out to an average of 7.8 yards per carry, while adding a touchdown to boot.
The defense for The Rock was highlighted by senior defensive back Tavarus Sample, who ended up with two interceptions on the day, including the game clinching interception with 17 seconds remaining in the game.
“In the end we just had to walk out together and just manned up and did our jobs,” Sample said regarding a second half defensive turnaround. “Everyone just cut their pride and came to play in the second half.”
KYSU received the opening kick off, and on only their third offensive play, Kentucky junior running back Brett Sylve ran the ball 75 yards to the house to just 1:45 into the game to give them a 7-0 advantage. The following drive for the Green and White resulted in a Koester interception after six plays, giving KYSU great field position at The Rock 30-yard line. After eight plays, the Thorobreds were able to score another touchdown to extend their lead to 14 points.
Koester quickly made up for his interception three plays later as he was able to connect with redshirt sophomore receiver Henry Litwin for a 57 yard touchdown to cut the deficit in half at 14-7.
“We [the offense] started off a little slow, especially me,” Koester said. “I have to do a better job of picking up the rhythm to start, but once we got going we were alright.”
The following two drives resulted in three and outs for both teams to end the first quarter, but not before KYSU was able to set themselves up for a three yard touchdown run to start the second. The next drive The Rock was able to march down to the Thorobred’s 3-yard line on seven plays but were abruptly stopped by a Koester fumble on the goal line.
Kentucky State wasn’t able to do anything with the turnover as they punted just six plays later, which was followed up by a Rock six play drive also resulting in a punt. When KYSU got the ball back, they were then able to take the ball 47 yards on five plays, ending in another Sylve touchdown with 4:41 remaining in the half to extend their lead to 21 at 28-7. Just before the half, SRU was able to cap off a five play drive with a 10 yard touchdown run by Hills to cut the lead in half again.
“We can’t start out that way at the beginning of a game,” Lutz said. “I’m telling you, you’re not going to see a better quarterback in terms of running, but still it’s unacceptable how many missed tackles we had in the first half defensively.”
The Rock received the second half kick off and was able to score a much needed touchdown just five plays later off a 40 yard Koester touchdown pass, this time to redshirt junior receiver Mike Merhaut. The next drive, KYSU was able to march down to The Rock 23-yard line, but was stopped short on a fourth and two play, giving the ball back to the Green and White.
Then, on what seemed to be a game tying touchdown run by Hills 13 plays later, resulted in another goal line fumble for The Rock. While adding insult to injury, the Thorobreds were able to return the ball all the way to The Rock 20-yard line but were not able to score, as their 33 yard field goal missed just five plays later.
Just when things weren’t crazy enough, on the second play of the following drive, Koester was able to rush the ball 80 yards on a quarterback option all the way to the house to indeed tie the game at 28 all.
“Yeah, the defensive end crashed right away, so it kind of opened up and I just kept pressing the outside. Nobody took me so I just took off,” Koester said with a laugh.
The momentum swing wasn’t done, as on the third play on the following drive, Sample was able to make his first interception of the day, while returning the ball 62 yards to the KYSU 4-yard line. A Rock penalty pushed the ball back to the 19-yard line, but The Rock was still able to take advantage of the opportunity, as they scored six plays later on a Koester three yard touchdown pass to junior receiver Austin Scott to make the score 35-28 SRU with 1:19 left in the third quarter.
In the fourth quarter, both teams traded field goals early on but then resulted in a slow stalemate. The Thorobreds did end up with the ball at the end with 48 seconds remaining and no time outs, but all hopes were crushed after Sample’s second interception sealed the deal giving The Rock a 38-31 victory against their non-conference opponent.
“I think we were a little out manned and out depthed,” KYSU head coach John L. Smith said. “On a hot day like today against a good football team, its going to show, but no excuses.”
With the win, The Rock was able to win a tenth consecutive season opener, going back all the way to 2008 with a road win over Seton Hill University. Up next for the Green and White comes a date with Shippensburg University at Shippensburg with the kick off slated for 1:00 p.m. this coming Saturday.