The usual suspects lead No. 11 Rock football to home opening win

Published by Karl Ludwig, Date: September 16, 2019
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Junior linebacker Trysten McDonald looks to sack Shippensburg quarterback Brycen Mussina. McDonald finished the game with three tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss.

Trailing by 10 late in the first quarter against Shippensburg University, Slippery Rock football coach Shawn Lutz could have screamed expletives at his team.

Instead, he said the usual suspects took over the game for him.

Quarterback Roland Rivers III continued his aerial assault on Division II football and linebacker Brad Zaffram tossed opponents around the field, literally, in route to 48 consecutive points and a 54-19 home opening victory at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium Saturday evening.

“It’s really easy, Brad Zaffram on defense and Roland Rivers on offense,” Lutz said. “I said, ‘you guys have been in this position, we’re the better football team, let’s just go out there and play.’”

The Slippery Rock University football team (2-0, 0-0 PSAC) benefited from continued excellence from its senior quarterback. Rivers puts himself in a position to thrive each game because of his tireless work effort, according to Lutz.

“If he keeps it up, he can be in contention for the Harlon Hill Trophy,” Lutz said. “The understanding and confidence he has now is through the roof. Our OC [Adam Neugebauer] does a good job of developing a relationship with him, and he’s just a tireless worker.”

Despite an admitted less than ideal start, Rivers resumed from where he basically paused the game against Wayne State, completing 25 of 34 pass attempts for 369 yards and four touchdowns.

When trailing early in the game, Rivers attributed the trust instilled between the offense and the defense in no one panicking at the first deficit of the season.

“Making sure I do my job,” Rivers said. “When guys are able to trust that you’re going to do your job every day, that’s how you build leadership. And those guys being able to trust me doing my job on the field is huge.”

River’s renewed leadership extended to shouldering the blame of a poor start and acknowledging the defense keeping SRU in the game in the first quarter.

“We knew even on those early drives that we kind of shot ourselves in the foot, it was nothing that the defense did, it was something we did to ourselves. So, it was just letting the guys know to just take it one play at a time,” Rivers said.

Taking it one play at a time led to 48 consecutive points from the highest scoring offense in Division II football through two weeks.

While junior running back DeSean Dinkins opened up the scoring for SRU with a six-yard carry at the end of the first quarter, Rivers connecting with junior receivers Jermaine Wynn Jr. and Henry Litwin broke the game wide open.

Seemingly trading long touchdown catches each possession, the duo combined for 16 catches for 283 yards and four scores. Ranking inside the top seven in nearly every major receiving statistics across Division II football, Lutz said he knew his star receivers would step up this season.

Seeing a guy like redshirt freshman receiver Qaadir Dixon make a circus catch for a 42-yard touchdown is a welcomed surprise, he said.

“It was great to see someone else on the score sheet,” Lutz said. “We got some firepower with Wynn and Litwin always coming up in the score sheet but to get [Dixon] coming up like that was awesome.”

Despite 238 yards on the ground against the Raiders, Lutz is still searching for clarity at the running back position.

“I’ve got to watch a bit more of the film, but I think we can run any four of those guys,” Lutz said.” Dinkins did show some flashes today. I’ve just got to stay patient with it and if we’ve got to play all four then we’ll play all four.”

SRU’s leading rusher redshirt senior Nassir Weaver had 77 yards on the ground, but 75 of those came on a touchdown run late in the fourth quarter. Senior Charles Snorweah led SRU with 14 carries for 58 yards in another game where he struggled to string together impact runs.

However, SRU’s offense has not suffered as The Rock boasts the top scoring offense in Division II football. Rivers, Litwin and Wynn have led The Rock to become the top D-II team in passing offense, passing efficiency, turnovers lost, 4th down conversions, and red zone efficiency.

After allowing 39 points to Wayne State in week one, The Rock’s defense returned to form with only 10 points allowed before the Raiders scored a touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

Rivers even credited the defense as the reason he has gotten off to such a strong start this season.

“This is the best defense in the country, in my opinion,” Rivers said. “We’re able to play so well as an offense because we go up against the best defense we’re going to go up against in practice every day.

Led by Zaffram, SRU’s defense recorded three sacks and forced three turnovers, two interceptions and a forced fumble, along with four stops on fourth down. The Raiders were only able to gain 1.9 yards per carry against a stout SRU defensive line.

Following SRU’s first touchdown of the game, Zaffram picked off Raiders’ quarterback Brycen Mussina on a play that turned the tide of the game.

“It wasn’t just a pick,” Zaffram said. “It was the character of our defense and the resilience that we had to make that stop. The passer rushers were in [Mussina’s] face so that’s really why I got the pick.”

Rivers connected with Litwin for a 40 yard touchdown pass a couple plays later and the offense never gave the Raiders a chance to get back in the game.

With two turnover on downs, a punt and another interception for the Raiders’ offense over its next four possessions, the defense put Rivers and co. in position to build a large lead.

“Turnovers always change the game. I think we knew as a defense that if we kept fighting, having our brothers’ backs, we’d come out victorious,” Zaffram said.

Despite the large lead and having a quarterback like Rivers on the other side of the ball, Zaffram said SRU’s defense wasn’t just playing against the Raiders. It was playing against itself.

“It all starts from the top,” Zaffram said. “[Defensive coordinator Domenick] Razzano just instills [that character] in us and we don’t play against our opponent. We play against our standard. And our standard is 100% effort, 100% of the time, regardless of the score.”

Following the shootout against Wayne State, Lutz said his defense was angry. The resolve and bounce back he saw from the veteran group was exactly what he expected.

SRU’s Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference-East quest will continue against Millersville University Saturday evening at home before the PSAC-West games start on Sept. 28 in Greensburg, PA. against Seton Hill University.

“Going forward, we’ve got Millersville,” Rivers said. “We’re going to celebrate this win, 24 hours, and come back tomorrow ready to work.”

Going forward, Rivers is focused on one thing: breaking the scoreboard.

“We want to break the scoreboard. We want to put up as many points as to where the scoreboard can’t keep up. We’re just going to keep playing it one play at a time, and when the touchdowns come, we’ll be ready to make them.”

Kickoff against Millersville is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium. The game is designated as the Village Fest/Family Day game.

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