A chilly rain drizzled down steadily on the Slippery Rock campus Saturday morning. Thousands of students, alumni and fans left their tailgates clad in black and trudged up the wet driveway of Mihalik-Thompson Stadium.
It appeared that Slippery Rock and Indiana (Pa.) would play in the rain. Until suddenly, rays of sunshine burst through the clouds and the temperature seemed to rise by 10 degrees.
Suddenly, it was a perfect day for football. And in the first half, it was perfect for Rock football, too.
After leading 31-14 at halftime, The Rock (6-0, 3-0 PSAC) weathered a second-half surge from the Crimson Hawks (5-1, 2-1 PSAC) and held on for a 45-42 victory to cap off homecoming weekend at SRU.
“The first half, we had our way. In the second half, they had theirs. We just had a special kid tonight that extended plays and found a way to win,” Slippery Rock head coach Shawn Lutz said.
That special player, star quarterback Roland Rivers III, did not fill up the stat sheet like he had been accustomed to doing over the first five weeks of the season.
Rivers completed only 15 of 24 attempts for a season-low 180 yards. His one touchdown pass was canceled out by an interception. But when it mattered most, Rivers and the Rock offense had a chance to ice the game on the biggest possession of the year and he showed up.
“We wanted to keep applying pressure. We had a couple of drives that we could have kept going but came up a little short,” Rivers said. ”We’ve got to do a better job of putting our foot on their throats and just finishing the team. We knew that the ball game was in our hands, and it was up to us to keep playing for each other and just take it one play at a time.”
Rivers’ mantra of “one play at a time” was a perfect way to describe the 14-play, 75-yard drive, but it almost ended with a punt before it could come to fruition.
“I almost called a timeout. I almost called a timeout!” Lutz said. “I saw Roland under center, and he’s a big dude, so I’m thinking, ‘he’s got to be able to get a yard.’ If I called it, we were going to punt. The reason why I went for it is that we were on our backs defensively. They were going up and down the field on us. You look at the analytics of it, can’t you get one yard?”
The 14-play drive ended up being a crucial stretch of the game, as IUP scored a huge momentum-changing touchdown just before.
When IUP quarterback Quinton Maxwell hit JoJo Gause for a 17-yard strike in the back of the end zone, an energized away crowd erupted. The Crimson Hawks pulled within three of SRU and the momentum swung heavily back to the team in the midst of a 28-7 run.
With 8:35 left in the fourth quarter, IUP had cut the lead to 38-35 and The Rock hadn’t scored since early in the third quarter.
Starting on their own 25-yard line, a mixture of Rivers and senior running back Charles Snorweah pushed SRU to their own 45, but it was fourth down. A 4th-and-1 on their own side of the field normally would be enough for Lutz to call on his punt team.
With the way IUP’s offense was moving in the second half and fatigue setting in for the defense, Lutz said he decided it was time to take the risk.
Rivers used his 6’3″, 230-pound frame to power between his tackles and fall forward for a first down. SRU avoided the turnover on downs, and the offense stayed on the field.
A few plays later, on IUP’s 40-yard line, SRU faced a pivotal 3rd-and-7. Standing in the shotgun formation, Rivers had the ball in the backfield with a few Crimson Hawk defender bearing down on him. Avoiding the pressure by scrambling outside the pocket, Rivers cut right across the field and fired a ball toward the sideline for wide receiver Cinque Sweeting. Sweeting trapped the ball to his chest, got a foot down in bounds and picked up the first down for SRU.
“We knew that we had to go ahead and put the game out of reach. We milked some of that clock by relying on the run game. Cinque made a great catch on third down on a scramble drill and we finished it off with Charles in the end zone. We practice situations like that,” Rivers said.
Snorweah picked up five yards on the next play, followed by 10 more from Rivers. On the 12-yard line, Snorweah took a handoff from Rivers and burst through a hole in the offensive line. With the end zone in sight, Snorweah powered in for the game-clinching score.
“I just felt like going into the game, I had a job to do. I had 16-17 carries today … 20 carries, that speaks volumes. The coaches had trust and belief in me, and I just wanted to go out there and do my job. I knew I could do it with my team, and I showed it today,” Snorweah said.
IUP would get the ball back with 1:30 left, down by 10. Maxwell led a scoring drive, capped with a rushing touchdown from Maxwell, but the ensuing onside kick was recovered by wide receiver Jermaine Wynn, Jr. to win the game.
“It’s a confidence boost,” Rivers said. “This game right here isn’t the entire season, but it’s IUP. Our in-state rivalry in the PSAC-West. PSAC champions are usually based on this game. Despite the adversity we went through, we were able to stay together as a team.”
SRU’s offense and defense clicked early in the game and any thought of adversity was strictly reserved for IUP.
The Rock offense capitalized on a three and out from the Crimson Hawks with a DeSean Dinkins two-yard touchdown run to open the scoring. Less than a minute later, Trysten McDonald intercepted Maxwell on the five-yard line and dashed into the end zone to make the score 14-0 before the grandstands had even filled up.
A Jake Chapla field goal at the end of the first quarter pushed SRU’s lead to 17, but IUP would score quickly to start the second quarter on a Justice Evan’s touchdown run.
The Rock would counter with a pair of rushing touchdowns, continuing a strong day on the ground. Lutz credited the strong day running the ball as a difference-maker in the win over IUP.
“If you told me coming into this game that we’d rush for 230 yards, I would say you’re absolutely crazy. That was a difference in the game today. We have struggled all year doing that. [Charles] really ran hard today. He’s not the biggest kid, but he’s compact, gets downhill and he was a big reason why we won today,” Lutz said.
It was Dinkins again who scored the third-quarter touchdown, however, as he bounced a handoff to the outside and dashed 29 yards to the end zone. Rivers scored a rushing touchdown of his own, diving into the end zone on a 10-yard designed run.
A two-yard touchdown pass from Maxwell to Duane Brown cut SRU’s halftime lead to 31-14 and the late score combined with the Crimson Hawks receiving the ball after the halftime break left Lutz feeling uneasy.
“I never felt really good in that game. I would’ve felt good if we would have held them before the half. That drive right before the half, if we were up 31-7 at halftime … we were up 31-14, and they got the ball after halftime. I knew it would be a good football game in the second half,” Lutz said.
IUP gave his team a ball game in the second half.
Maxwell, who Lutz complimented as a big-time player with a heck of an arm, rebounded from a less than ideal first half with a pair of third-quarter touchdowns to Dom McNeil. Maxwell and McNeil connected on 8- and 17-yard touchdown strikes.
If not for a jump ball touchdown grab from Wynn, whose momentum carried him into the end zone, in between those McNeil touchdowns, SRU would have finally faced a deficit in the fourth quarter.
The final eight minutes and change unfolded with the touchdowns from Gause, Snorweah and Maxwell and SRU ultimately made enough plays to win the game, Lutz said.
“It’s just one of those classic games. There were a lot of extracurriculars on both sides, penalties both ways. It was chippy and physical, and that’s what both teams are. I just thought we were mirror images of each other,” Lutz said.
The way in which SRU won the game differed from the norm which Rivers established through the first five weeks. Four of five games this season, Rivers has thrown for 300 yards and four touchdowns. That wasn’t the case against IUP.
Instead, Snorweah, Dinkins and Rivers combined for 230 rushing yards. Snorweah rumbled for a career-high 123 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. It was the first time a Rock running back rushed for 100 yards in a game since Wes Hills last season.
Rivers ran for 81 yards and a score while Dinkins took two of his three carries for touchdowns.
Lutz attributed the defensive packages IUP threw at his offense as to why he wanted to run the ball. Rivers, who carried the ball 18 times, credited the offensive line in opening holes for the running backs and himself.
“The one thing IUP tried to do was play more coverage against our offense,” Lutz said. “They tried to take away our deep plays and big plays with our receivers. They took some guys out of the box. That was their strategy, so we started running the football.”
With the win, SRU has won back to back games against the Crimson Hawks and five of the last seven. Rivers expressed how honored he is to even be a part of the rivalry.
“This rivalry has been going on for almost 100 years, I believe, and to just be a part of it is special. Seeing all the alumni come back and just seeing the passion they have for Rock football. Guys who graduated in 1943, just seeing the passion he has for Slippery Rock. We go out there and play for the alumni, the students, the faculty, and we want to bring a championship to Slippery Rock,” Rivers said.
Despite the loss to SRU, Lutz praised IUP and their resiliency during the game. And he fully expects to see them again.
“Feel free to disagree with me. I’m really going to say this. I think us and IUP are [two] of the best teams in the country,” Lutz said.
The road to the PSAC championship continues on the road against Edinboro Saturday with a PSAC-West clash against the Fighting Scots.
Kickoff is slated for 12 p.m. at the Sox Harrison Stadium.