The No. 10 Slippery Rock University football team (8-0, 5-0 PSAC West) will welcome rival California (Pa.) (6-2, 4-1 PSAC West) to Mihalik-Thompson stadium Saturday for a 1 p.m. matchup.
The Rock has been a dominant force in the PSAC Conference for several years, as Saturday’s showdown will serve as a chance for The Rock to clinch the PSAC West for the fifth time in eight years. Additionally, The Rock can extend their PSAC West winning streak to 14 games with a win over the Vulcans on Saturday.
The Green and White have cruised by a majority of their PSAC West opponents this season, as their average margin of victory is 24.2 in those divisional games. Even with an impressive resume against such opponents this season, head coach Shawn Lutz and his team are not taking the Vulcans lightly.
“Every game is a tough game but in the last couple years, [the PSAC West] comes down to [Slippery Rock], IUP and Cal,” Lutz said. “They’re a veteran team and have some really good players so we are expecting a very good football game.”
Lutz then went on to say that the team is preparing for Cal U to give their best shot and whichever team makes less mistakes will come out on top.
The Vulcans will certainly look to topple the PSAC West juggernaut that is Slippery Rock, as a win will give Cal U a path to potentially capture a share of the PSAC West title. A win would also greatly boost California’s chances of making the Division II playoffs as well.
On the brink of winning yet another PSAC West title, Saturday’s game could be seen as extra motivation to get the job done against Cal U. However, Lutz knows that no matter what is on the line or who they are playing, his players continue to stay focused and ready to play.
“We don’t really want to get caught up on winning the [PSAC West] or Cal U, or being undefeated,” Lutz said. “I don’t think they need any extra motivation, I think they’re just ready to go and perform.”
Slippery Rock will have no choice but to be up to the challenge Saturday, as the Vulcans bring in a talented offense as well as the best rush defense across all of Division II. Slippery Rock was forced to move wide receiver Cinque Sweeting into the backfield in The Rock’s last game, as injuries have hampered the deep and talented SRU backfield.
Even with redshirt senior Nassir Weaver out for the season due to a torn pectoral and starting running back Charles Snorweah nursing an ankle injury, Lutz will once again deploy a backfield by committee.
Lutz said that it can be expected that the likes of junior DeSean Dinkins and redshirt junior Braden Fochtman will handle a majority of the backfield touches. Lutz also went on to say that he isn’t afraid to put Sweeting in the backfield again, after a productive week against Clarion in which the all-around athlete took 16 carries for 80 yards.
Although the Green and White are down to their second and third string running backs and matched up against the best rush defense in the nation, Lutz plans to keep a healthy balance through the air and on the ground, while trying to counter what the defense shows.
“We’re really a team that takes what the defense gives us,” Lutz said. “If they put a lot of guys in the box, we’ll throw the ball. If they spread us out, we’re going to run the football and I think we’ve proved that we can do both things.”
With star quarterback Roland Rivers III putting up numbers never seen before at Slippery Rock, it has led to opposing defenses to focus on the passing game. But over the last four games, Slippery Rock has proved that they can operate under a balanced offense, averaging 279.5 passing yards per game and 182.8 rushing yards per game.
Aside from maintaining a balanced offense, Lutz gives some other keys that his team must execute to emerge from Saturday’s game with a victory and the PSAC West title.
“[Cal U] has created 22-24 turnovers on defense this year. We cannot make mistakes,” Lutz said. “If we don’t turn over the ball and stop their running back Nelson Brown, I like our chances to win.”
Brown had a career game in the Vulcans’ game during last week’s contest against Mercyhurst, rushing for 119 yards and two touchdowns. The talented running back also burst free on a 74-yard touchdown reception. At 5’11” and 225 pounds, the tailback possesses the ability to punish defenders in open space as well showing elite speed.
Aside from their bruiser of a running back, Cal U brings size and athleticism at the wide receiver position as well. On the defensive side of the ball, Lutz identified a player that could potentially pose problems for the talented Rock offense.
“[Lamont] McPhatter is everywhere, he’s like Troy Polamalu,” Lutz said. “He was the defensive player of the year last season so we gotta know where he is at all times.”
Comparing any defensive player to the likes of Troy Polamalu serves as high praise, but McPhatter’s long list of accolades speak for themselves. The defensive back was named a consensus First-Team All-American in 2018, as well as being selected as a regional nominee for the Harlon Hill Trophy. As Lutz stated, McPhatter was also voted as the PSAC West Defensive Athlete of the year.
With a player as talented as McPhatter, The Rock might possess the perfect counter to the senior safety in Rivers. A Harlon Hill Trophy contender in his own right, Rivers ranks as the most efficient passer in the nation (195.5) as well as passing touchdowns (28). Aside from his star quarterback, Lutz is confident that his wide receivers will be the difference makers on Saturday.
“I like our wide receivers on their defensive backs,” Lutz said. “I think we can win some matchups right there.”
Even with McPhatter lurking in the secondary, the All-American can only guard one receiver at a time. Cal U will proverbially pick their poison, as one of the most talented receiving corps in the nation will test the Vulcans’ secondary play after play.
Another area of strength that Lutz believes his undefeated squad has the edge in is his defensive line.
“We’re good against the run,” Lutz said. “I think our defensive line is much stronger than their offensive line, so I think that will be a telling tale.”
In one way or another, Slippery Rock has been able to expose the flaws of any opponent that has lined up across from them this season. If The Rock can take advantage of those matchups, Slippery Rock will be crowned as PSAC West champions once again.
In potentially the last home game of the season, Saturday’s game is also the annual “Senior Day”, honoring its seniors throughout the game. Kickoff is slated for 1 p.m. from Mihalik-Thompson stadium.