Following last week’s 28-13 win against Clarion University, the Slippery Rock University football team will face perhaps their toughest opponent of the season this week. The Rock, coming off six consecutive wins, will take on the California University (Pa.) Vulcans on Saturday in a Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) showdown.
The Rock enters Saturday’s game in first place in the PSAC West Division with an overall record of 7-1 and 5-0 in the conference. They are currently the only team in the PSAC West who remain unbeaten in conference play. The Vulcans currently sit at a record of 5-3 (4-1) and in second place in the PSAC West.
Rock head coach Shawn Lutz said he is confident in his team to be able to defeat the Vulcans.
“I expect to beat [California] but that’s not saying we’re going to,” Lutz said. “I don’t think anyone would disagree in saying that we could beat anybody right now. But also, we have all those penalties and some of the other things we do to shoot ourselves in the foot, we could also lose to anybody.”
Penalties have caused the some of the biggest problems for The Rock this year. They currently rank last (167th) in all of Division II in fewest penalty yards with 906 yards on 85 penalties, according to the NCAA.
Despite the penalties, Slippery Rock has continued to put up strong offensive numbers. They currently lead the entire PSAC with 42 touchdowns and 323 total points, according to the PSAC. Leading that offense for the sixth consecutive game is quarterback Roland Rivers III. Rivers has rushed for 320 yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry on 65 attempts. He has also thrown for 1,665 yards 19 touchdowns with 118 completions on 195 attempts for a pass rating of 60.51 percent.
Rivers has been putting up some impressive numbers with redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jermaine Wynn Jr.
Rivers has connected with Wynn Jr., a transfer from Alderson Broddus, for 214 yards and five touchdowns in the past two weeks.
“They’ve been hitting it off these past few games, haven’t they,” Lutz said. “I don’t know if they have been hanging out or what. He runs good routes but what I really like about [Jermaine] is that he’s such a positive, positive person when you talk to him; he’s a coach’s dream.”
In addition to Wynn Jr., Slippery Rock’s receiving core has found continuous success this season. Redshirt sophomore Henry Litwin leads all Rock receivers with 560 receiving yards and is tied with Wynn Jr. in touchdowns, with six. Redshirt junior Mike Merhaut and true junior Austin Scott have combined for 614 receiving yards and five touchdowns on 29 catches.
Senior running back Wes Hills is coming off arguably one of his strongest games of the season so far during Saturday’s game against Clarion. On the season, Hills has rushed for 658 yards (averaging 6.8 yards per carry) on 97 attempts with five touchdowns. He currently ranks fifth in the PSAC in rushing yards with 658. Since Hills has returned from an injury that he suffered in week two’s loss to Shippensburg University, redshirt sophomore Braden Fochtman has seen a drop in playing time, despite being one of Lutz’s go-to running backs in Hills’ absence.
Lutz acknowledged the skills and talent that Fochtman has brought to the team this season and said that he is very fortunate and confident in using him when the situation calls for it.
“With what you have seen in both the Clarion game and in the Edinboro game, would you use anybody but Wes Hills right now,” Lutz said. [Hills] is a better blocker simply because he is a much bigger guy and, I mean, try tackling the guy. Right now, we’re set with Hills but when [Hills] needs a breather we will put Fochtman in the game with no hesitation.”
Perhaps The Rock’s group of unsung heroes this season has been the offensive line, Lutz said. Prior to the start of the season, Lutz said that the offensive line was his team’s weakest link.
“We have other team’s coaches talking about how good our offensive line has been this season,” said Lutz, enthusiastically. “Find me a better offensive line in the conference right now than ours.”
Defensively, The Rock will look to their linemen to help break through California’s offense. The duo of redshirt sophomore Chad Kuhn and redshirt junior Trey Blandford have combined for 14.5 sacks for 133 yards. Along with fellow linemen senior Tim Soave and redshirt sophomore Tim Vernick, Kuhn and Blandford make up one of the PSAC’s strongest defensive lines, Lutz said.
“Our defensive line coach Joe Phillips does a great job with our line,” Lutz said. “They are just relentless and play hard. After last week’s game against Clarion, I definitely think we have the best defensive line in the conference.”
With the matchup with California just days away, Lutz acknowledged that this game will be one of the more interesting ones of the season so far in the PSAC.
“It’s semifinals on both sides with us and California and West Chester and Kutztown,” Lutz said. “It’s one of the most pivotal games in the season just because of what it could lead to in the playoffs.”
Kickoff for Saturday’s game against the Vulcans is slated for 1 p.m. at Adamson Stadium in California, Pennsylvania.