Going into the 2018 season, the Slippery Rock University football team was ranked third in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC), expected to finish behind California (Pa.) University and Indiana (Pa.) University.
“We don’t care where or how we are ranked,” Rock head coach Shawn Lutz said throughout the season. “If anything it motivates the team to prove people wrong.”
Two weeks into the season, The Rock seemed destined to finish below their third-place ranking. Just a week after escaping a narrow 38-31 victory over Kentucky State University, The Rock suffered an ugly 25-21 defeat at the hands of Shippensburg University in week two, during which the team lost starting quarterback Andrew Koester for the entire season to a knee injury.
To make matters worse for SRU, their highly anticipated regarded running back Wes Hills suffered a shoulder injury just two plays into the game. Hills, who transferred from the University of Delaware, was expected to miss at least six weeks.
Backup quarterback Taylor King was expected to take over control of The Rock offense for week three. That all changed when he was ruled out due to a minor foot injury that he suffered against Shippensburg. The Rock then looked to third-string quarterback Roland Rivers III to help them get back on track and never looked back.
Rivers took the PSAC by storm, quickly becoming one of the top quarterbacks in the PSAC. Rivers finished the season third in passing yards and completions with 2,721 and 198, respectively, while finishing second in touchdown passes with 28.
“If you look at every successful team in college football, and even in the NFL, they only go as far as their quarterback takes them,” Lutz said. “Roland had some bumps in the road, but for the most part he did a tremendous job for us this season.”
Hills would defy his doctors’ prognosis for his injury and return after missing just two games. He would quickly become one of the top running backs, not just in the PSAC, but in all of Division II football. His 1,714 rushing yards are third best in the country. Hills said he does not know how he healed so quickly from his injury.
“I really couldn’t do anything to help my recovery,” said Hills, earlier in the season. “I was blessed, man, I really was.”
Leading up to week six’s matchup with school rival Indiana (Pa.), Lutz said he still wasn’t sure where he felt his team stacked up against a legit contender. The Rock, against all odds, came out victorious over the Crimson Hawks during their homecoming game and won 30-27.
“When we won that game, I knew our team was something special,” Lutz said. “Beating IUP on their home turf was a real turning point for our season because we started to become very confident and knew we could make a deep playoff run if we continued what we were doing.”
The Green and White continued dominating conference opponents for the rest of the season to set them up against no. 9 West Chester University in the PSAC Championship, a rematch of the 2015 title game in which The Rock beat the Golden Rams 61-12.
It didn’t work out for The Rock, as the West Chester defense was able to contain both Rivers and Hills, and steal SRU’s quest for their third PSAC Championship since 2014.
Despite the loss, The Rock’s season was not over, as they were given the seventh seed in the Super Region One as part of the NCAA Division II playoffs. The selection was their first since 2015, and fourth since 2013, according to Rock Athletics.
The Rock traveled to LIU Post for the first round of the national playoffs and took down the Pioneers 20-14. The Rock then headed to Connecticut to take on the University of New Haven. The Green and White dominated throughout the game, so much so that Lutz put his second-string into the game to preserve the starters, and took down the Chargers 59-20. Lutz said that although he is always confident in his team, he never expected them to beat New Haven by 39 points.
“For us to come out and play a game the way we did is just unbelievable,” Lutz said.
The win advanced Slippery Rock to the quarterfinals to take on no. 11 Notre Dame College. Despite battling all game long, and not allowing the Falcons to score once in the second half, The Rock’s season ultimately came to a close with a 21-17 defeat. The Rock football program has never once made it past the NCAA quarterfinals.
Lutz, who won the 2018 PSAC West Coach of the Year, said that although winning the national championship is always the program goal, he is still proud of what his team accomplished this year.
“We defied the odds,” Lutz said. “All around, I am very happy with the run our team was able to make this year.”
Lutz highlighted the many positives that came from his team this season.
“If you look at our return game and our kicker from this past season, I would give us an ‘A’ on special teams,” he said. “Defensively, I would give us an ‘A-’, simply because we didn’t win the national championship. Offensively, I would go with a ‘B+’, due to us not scoring enough points in games where it was crucial to do so.”
Lutz said that before the season started there were a lot of questions among the coaching staff about how the offense was going to work, especially having to do without star receivers Marcus Johnson and Milly Raye.
The Rock’s primary receiving group during the season consisted of seniors Dakota Clanagan, Austin Scott, and Carnel Harley, redshirt junior Mike Merhaut, and redshirt sophomores Henry Litwin and Jermaine Wynn Jr. These six men accounted for 27 of The Rock’s 33 touchdown passes and 82% of the receiving yards recorded throughout the season.
Perhaps the biggest loss for the Green and White following this season will be the departure of Hills. Throughout the season, Lutz said he has never seen a running back in Division II football as talented as Hills.
“He is one of the best football players I have ever seen and a great team leader,” Lutz said. “He was only here for a few short weeks during camp before the rest of the team voted him as a captain for the season. That shows you what kind of person and football player that he is.”
Hills, who had one semester of eligibility left coming into the season, accepted an invitation to the National Football League Players Association Collegiate Bowl at the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California. The event, which will be held on Jan. 19, 2019, is one of the top postseason showcase events for potential NFL players, according to Rock Athletics.
Hills said that prior to the start of the season, he heard rumors that he could be selected in the sixth or seventh round of the upcoming NFL draft. Following the season, Hill said he thinks he could go as early as the fourth round.
Besides Hills, The Rock is losing several key players that have been integral to the team’s success over the past several years. They are losing three key receivers in Clanagan, Scott, and Harley as well as two key offensive linemen in Colten Raabe and Steve Gaviglia who were crucial in creating opportunities for the offense to score, Lutz said.
Lutz attributed much of the success of the offensive line to The Rock’s Associate Head Coach and Offensive Line coach Chris Conrad. Conrad, a former lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers, helped mold an offensive line that was considered by Lutz at the beginning of the season as the team’s Achilles heel, to be one of the top lines in the PSAC.
“Tremendous job by Coach Conrad this season,” Lutz said. “Since we are losing Colten (Raabe) and Steve (Gaviglia) to graduation, we are going to need guys to step up next season on the line and I fully expect that process to begin with Chris Larsen.”
Larsen, a six-foot-four, 325 pounds, redshirt junior is now The Rock’s most veteran offensive linemen and is expected to help maintain the success the line has had, Lutz said.
Junior Jake Chapla has continued to solidify his reputation as being one of the top kickers in Division II football. Chapla finished the season with the most field goals made among all PSAC kickers with 17. He currently has the most points made by a kicker in SRU history with 275 points, which also places him third in all-time in scoring for The Rock.
Defensively, The Rock is returning most of their starters with the exception of defensive back Kyle Hall. Junior Brad Zaffram, redshirt sophomores Tim Vernick, Chad Kuhn, and Dalton Holt, and sophomore Trysten McDonald are among the many starters on The Rock defense who will be back next season. Lutz said
“We had two bad defensive games this season, and really they were just halves,” Lutz explained. “We were bad against Kentucky State in the first half and against West Chester in the first half. Besides that, I thought the defense was one of the best in the country on all levels.”
Lutz said with the addition of another strong running back, he fully expects his team to be a formidable force in the PSAC West next season.
“We don’t get too excited about how good we know we are,” Lutz said. “We just got to keep working hard while trusting in the process. I expect us to have a great offseason so that our guys get healthier and stronger.”
Lutz said he doesn’t expect just one person to step up next season and spoke highly of the members of the freshman class who redshirted this past season.
“It’s going to be a team effort next season to help some of these young guys fill in the veterans’ shoes,” Lutz said. “At this point, I really don’t know about who I am expecting big things out of next season. I am going to have to wait until our guys get a good lift in this offseason and see what we got come Spring practice.”