The Slippery Rock University football team will look to win their third Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) Championship title since the 2014 season on Saturday as they take on the West Chester University Golden Rams.
The Rock comes into the game as champions of the PSAC West Division with an overall record of 9-1 and 7-0 while the Golden Rams boast a record of 9-0 (6-0). Despite the undefeated record in the East, West Chester head coach Bill Zwaan said the West is without question, the better conference.
“There is talent in both conferences, no doubt,” Zwaan said. “But I don’t think there is much debate that the West is the more competitive of the two.”
Rock head coach Shawn Lutz enters his third season leading The Rock and has compiled records of 7-4 and 8-3 in his first two seasons as head coach, but failed to reach the conference title game in each of those two seasons.
Lutz said he is confident in his team’s ability to come out with the win over the Golden Rams.
“I can’t argue with what West Chester has done this season,” Lutz said. “They’re a damn good football team and they’re going to give us a big test on Saturday.”
Leading The Rock is junior quarterback Roland Rivers III. Rivers headlines a Rock offense that has put up 415 total points this season, which is 55 more points than West Chester’s 360. Rivers, who came in this season as The Rock’s third-string quarterback, took over for starter Andrew Koester and backup Taylor King, who both went down with injuries in Sept. 8’s loss to Shippensburg University. He currently has 1,987 passing yards, 21 touchdowns, and 144 completions on 235 attempts (61.28%).
Lutz said the key to Saturday’s game is making sure Rivers is comfortable with all facets of the game.
“We’re going to go with what works for [Rivers] the best,” Lutz said. “You have to make him feel good because if he doesn’t, that can easily cause West Chester to have the advantage.”
One of Rivers’ biggest successes all season has been his ability to not just effectively pass the ball, but to run the ball when needed. He is currently the team’s second-best rusher this season with 437 yards on the season, behind running back Wes Hills’ 1,113 yards.
Hills, a senior, is expected to give West Chester’s defense a run for their money, Lutz said. A transfer from the University of Delaware, Hills ranks in the top six in every major rushing statistic in the conference, according to the PSAC’s website. His 7.6 yards per carry rank first in the PSAC, despite him missing two more games than just about every other starting running back in the conference.
Lutz said that Rivers and Hills combine to be one of the biggest offensive threats in not just in the conference, but in the entire nation.
Lutz isn’t the only one who recognizes this threat. Zwaan said West Chester’s defense has been preparing for over a week now for their matchup against The Rock.
“There is no doubt that Wes Hills and Roland Rivers might be the best running back-quarterback duo in the PSAC,” Zwaan said. “And really, it’s not just stopping those two, but being able to break through the offensive line.”
The Rock’s offensive line was considered to be The Rock’s “Achilles heel” heading into week one’s matchup against Kentucky State, Lutz said. But since then, they have become perhaps the most reliable aspect of the team, he said.
Throughout a majority of the season, The Rock’s wide receiving core didn’t seem to have one go-to receiver. In recent weeks, however, redshirt sophomore Jermaine Wynn Jr. has seemingly filled that role. Wynn, a transfer from Alderson Broaddus University, has caught for 494 yards and currently leads all receivers in touchdowns with seven.
“Earlier on in the season, it seemed like Henry Litwin was our go-to guy out there,” Lutz said. “Jermaine has really stepped up in recent weeks and it’s shown out on the field.”
The Rock and West Chester currently boast the top two defenses in the PSAC. The Rock has given up 926 total yards, averaging 92.6 per game, and 12 touchdowns. West Chester’s defense has proven to be much better this season, Lutz said. The Golden Rams’ defense is led by a strong front seven that is highlighted by redshirt senior linebacker Tyler Morrissey and true senior defensive end Diquan Gilbert. Gilbert has seven solo sacks on the season for 76 yards, averaging at least one sack per game.
[West Chester] has some big boys on their defense,” Lutz said. “It’ll be interesting to see if our o-line can gain the upper hand on them.”
Despite the infamous reputation that West Chester’s defensive line has, Lutz said his team’s defense is excited to get out on the field.
“During the week, our boys don’t practice with full pads so that we prevent injuries,” Lutz said. “But our defense doesn’t like that because they just want to ‘kill’ people out on the field. They’re ready for Saturday.”
The Rock defense is led by seniors Kyle Hall and Tim Soave, redshirt junior Trey Blandford, junior Brad Zaffram, and redshirt sophomores Chad Kuhn and Tim Vernick.
Hall currently boasts a team-high five interceptions on the season. The trio of Kuhn, Blandford, and Soave combine for 20 sacks on the season for 145 yards.
Both Lutz and Zwaan said that they wouldn’t be surprised if Saturday’s game came down to who has the stronger performance from special teams.
“Whoever has the best special teams on Saturday will win the championship,” Zwaan said. “Turnovers are a huge factor too, obviously, but it’s going to come down to special teams.”
Lutz is confident in his kicker, junior Jake Chapla, to be able to make a game-winning kick if need be.
Chapla currently boasts a 60% field goal percentage (12 for 21), with two of those coming from 50 or more yards.
“Jake is one of the best kickers we have had in this program and he is only a junior,” Lutz said. “I am confident in his ability, as I have always been.”
The Rock’s matchup with West Chester will be the 19th time the two teams have met since 1929, according to Rock Athletics. The Green and White defeated the Golden Rams last season 49-42.
The last time the two teams met up in the PSAC Championship was in 2015 when The Rock won the game 61-12.
Kickoff for Saturday’s game is scheduled for 1 p.m. at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium in Slippery Rock.