The No. 10 Slippery Rock University football team (9-0, 6-0 PSAC West) captured its fifth PSAC West title in the last eight years with a win over California (Pa.) (6-3, 4-2 PSAC West) on Saturday at Mihalik-Thompson stadium.
A collective goal shared by players and coaches alike this season, the win all but ensures that Slippery Rock will represent the Pennsylvania State Athletic West Division in the PSAC Championship game for the second straight season on November 16th.
Slippery Rock has registered their 15th straight divisional victory, with the last loss coming over two years ago on Oct. 21, 2017. Even with sustained dominance in the PSAC West, The Green and White had their work cut out for them as they attempted to capture yet another PSAC West title.
Prior to Saturday’s game, Cal U brought in the nation’s top ranked rush defense, as well as a top 30 offense.
On the first drive of the game, the Vulcans looked comfortable early, steadily driving down the field into Slippery Rock territory. Things took a turn for the worse for Cal U however, as a 20-yard pass that would have set the Vulcans up within Slippery Rock’s five-yard line was called back due to a holding penalty. Just when The Rock needed a big play, Junior Safety Dalton Holt intercepted a pass from Noah Mitchell and returned it 22 yards to instantly flip the momentum of the game.
It was then Slippery Rock’s turn to sustain a long-drive of their own. And this time, the end result was in stark contrast of the drive Cal U attempted to put together.
Even though the Vulcans only allowed 38.6 rushing yards entering Saturday’s contest, it only took Slippery Rock one drive to nearly double that average. The Rock took seven rushing attempts for 65 yards between the likes of junior running back of DeSean Dinkins in Rivers to get within Cal U’s 10 yard line.
After that, the spectators at Mihalik-Thompson stadium were subjected to a similar sight, a Rivers to Henry Litwin touchdown. With 6:02 to go in the first quarter, The Rock had stood tall to the task of establishing the run game early and were rewarded with a 7-0 lead.
Rivers gave his thoughts on how important it was for Slippery Rock to establish the running game early, as well as how Dinkins played a big role in the absence of starting running back, Charles Snorweah.
“We came out early and showed that we can run the football on them and it gave us a lot of confidence to keep on playing that way,” Rivers said. “DeSean Dinkins stepped up today and really carried the load for us, and I’m just really happy and proud for what he was able to do.”
After being a pass-heavy offense to start the season, The Green and White have been able show their balance over the last five weeks, averaging 188.8 rush yards per game. Additionally, Slippery Rock was able to gouge the Vulcan defense for 211 yards Saturday, after they only allowed 309 total rush yards in their first eight games this season.
Undeterred from an unsuccessful drive from both the offense and defense to start the game, Cal U was able to deploy a heavy rushing attack of their own. California racked up 48 of their 69 yards on the ground, capping off the drive with a 19-yard rushing touchdown courtesy of running back Nelson Brown.
At the conclusion of the first quarter, both teams found themselves deadlocked in a 7-7 battle.
The Rock would go back to their running attack, putting together one of their longest drives of the season. SRU would rush the ball 11 times in 16 plays, setting up another Rivers touchdown. At the two yard line, Rivers used the success of the rushing game to his advantage, perfectly executing a play-action pass, this time finding freshman tight end Colton Richards in the end zone. The Rock would hold a brief 14-7 lead over Cal U.
Cal U responded once again by continuing to hand the ball of to Brown, who once again scored for the Vulcans on a two-yard rushing touchdown.
Senior linebacker Brad Zaffram, who finished the day with a career-high 13 tackles, spoke about the challenges Brown presented to the defense.
“He’s a big body, he’s a good [running] back, and he’s got some good moves,” Zaffram said. “We just kept fighting, that’s all we could do.”
In the first half, Brown did serious damage to The Rock defense, taking 16 carries for 92 yards and two touchdowns.
Slippery Rock would once again capture the lead before half time, thanks to a couple of game-changing plays by both the offense and defense. Standing tall at their own 45 yard line in a fourth and one situation, Holt came up big once again for the defense in a critical moment of the game. The starting safety met Brown at the line of scrimmage and brought him to the ground, denying a Cal U first-down and giving The Rock offense great field position.
Shortly thereafter, The Green and White faithful were given another reason to cheer, as Rivers connected with Litwin, who made a spectacular contested catch near the home sideline. The talented receiver managed to out jump the defender, locate the ball, and keep his feet in-bounds before outrunning the Vulcan defense for a 56-yard touchdown.
After what will be looked back on as possibly Slippery Rock’s best catch of the season, the three-headed monster in Jermaine Wynn. Jr, Litwin and Cinque Sweeting gathered in the end zone to celebrate the touchdown.
Slippery Rock would maintain a 21-14 lead as they went into halftime and made some adjustments as well, specifically to counter Brown.
Zaffram said that at the beginning of the game, The Rock’s plan was to blitz Cal U and create confusion within the backfield of the Vulcans. After Cal U’s offensive line picked up the blitz on a consistent basis in the first-half, Zaffram said that the defense went back to a base scheme, allowing their linebackers to run down hill and make plays.
The Rock held Brown to an inefficient 52 yards on 16 carries in the second half, but California still found a way to claw their way back into the game, thanks in part to a slew of SRU miscues.
The Rock started off the second half with an electric 66-yard pass from Rivers to redshirt freshman Qaadir Dixon, getting all the way down to the Vulcans’ 19-yard line in a matter of seconds. After failing to secure a first-down after that, The Rock turned to their usually steadfast kicker in Jake Chapla.
As the wind blew across the field and swirled in each direction, Chapla missed a 34-yard field goal attempt, putting an end to a once hopeful Slippery Rock drive.
The defense was able to force Cal U to punt, and once The Rock got the ball back, Rivers was able to connect with Sweeting who outran multiple Cal U defenders on his way to a 46-yard touchdown. But after going up by a score of 28-14, SRU would not find the end zone again.
After Slippery Rock’s defense forced another quick punt, it looked as though SRU was starting to finally pull away with the game as the offense took the field with a 28-14 lead.
On a first-down play at midfield, Rivers found Wynn underneath for a short pass. Wynn instantly met with a defender when the ball popped free from his hands, and Cal U was able to recover the ball.
The defense was able to stand tall again, forcing the Vulcans to turn the ball over on downs. But after the offense was unable to gain a first-down on the ensuing possession, punter Jackson Gildea sent a punt 33-yards down field which was then returned all the way to the Slippery Rock nine-yard line.
A theme of the whole game, Cal U made sure to get the ball in the hands of Brown, who eventually scored on his third short rushing touchdown of the day, cutting The Rock’s lead down to 28-21 heading into the fourth quarter.
The next few possessions for the Green and White were uneventful, as they ended with a blocked field goal, and a fumble by Dinkins.
With 5:49 left in the fourth quarter, Cal U prepared to give its all, as the team tried one last time to preserve any sort of postseason aspirations.
The Vulcans once again moved slowly but steadily down the field, chewing clock as the drive featured six handoffs to Brown. With only 21 yards separating Cal U and a potential tie game, senior linebacker Tim Vernick was able to pressure Mitchell into throwing an incomplete pass. Mitchell also sustained an injury on the play and left the game, leaving backup quarterback Josh Dale with the duty of keeping Cal U in the game.
With the odds stacked in The Green and White’s favor, Dale found Jackson wide-open for the game-tying touchdown.
Lutz explained the emotions running through his mind as the Vulcan’s backup quarterback scored the tying touchdown in his only snap of the day.
“I was devastated at that point,” Lutz said. “It was fourth down and they had a backup quarterback in. I could not imagine losing the football game and coming back [here] thinking of that.”
Lutz went on to give the quarterback credit on a great play and is thankful his team was able to rally once again and finish the job.
After being up by two scores early in the half, The Rock now looked at the possibility of heading into overtime and potentially jeopardizing their undefeated record.
With 1:10 to go in the game, Rivers and his offense took the field. The tension in the stadium was palpable, but Rivers and his offense were able to remain cool when it mattered most.
Rivers took three carries for 10 or more yards on the left drive, displaying excellent pocket presence and an ability to escape pressure and scramble. After completing an eight-yard pass to Dixon, Rivers was able to avoid a sack and take off for a 10-yard gain. As Rivers ran out of bounds to preserve a timeout and stop the clock, Cal U linebacker Breon Coke shoved Rivers to the ground.
With two referees close to the incident, yellow flags were seen tossed through the air, all but signaling Cal U’s fatal mistake. The penalty was called on Coke for unnecessary roughness and gave Slippery Rock a free 15 yards, putting The Green and White well within Chapla’s range.
Despite missing a kick and having another one blocked, Chapla was able to kick the game-winning field goal as time expired to give Slippery Rock the win and the PSAC West title. As the crowd roared, Chapla’s teammates rushed on to the field to congratulate the veteran kicker as well as celebrating their newly acquired PSAC West title.
History is said to repeat itself, and it did on Saturday. This year’s game-winning kick against Cal U, evoked memories from 2017, where Chapla lifted SRU to a 47-44 win in the final seconds against the Vulcans who were ranked No. 5 at the time.
Lutz spoke about his confidence in Slippery Rock’s all-time leading scorer to deliver in the game’s biggest moment.
“I felt really confident that he would make it from anywhere,” Lutz said. “Lay it on the line, I’d put [Chapla] against anyone to make that final kick.”
Slippery Rock will close out its regular season and divisional play Saturday at Gannon in a 1 p.m. matchup. With a win, The Rock will secure back to back seasons with a perfect record in the PSAC West.