Slippery Rock football has not started a season 9-0 since 1924, nearly 100 years ago, and it hasn’t gone unbeaten in a season since going 9-0-1 in 1974.
No team in program history has reached that elusive 10th win while still being unbeaten. That can change on Saturday.
With the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Championship against Kutztown looming in two weeks, overlooking lowly Gannon would be easy. But Slippery Rock head coach Shawn Lutz said he’s been around for too long to allow his team to take the Golden Knights too lightly.
“We’ve got so much to play for,” Lutz said. “To me, that should motivate them enough. We just have to have a good week of practice. We know what they’re trying to do to us.”
Playing at the McConnell Family Stadium on Saturday, Slippery Rock (9-0, 6-0 PSAC) has a chance to sweep the PSAC-West for the second straight season, secure the best start in program history and head into a potential clash of unbeaten PSAC schools for the title.
But Slippery Rock still has to actually beat Gannon first.
“This is [Gannon’s] last home game, so they’re going to be fired up and ready,” Lutz said. “Sometimes we don’t play too well in Gannon.”
While Lutz said he respects Gannon, the game will really come down to whether or not Slippery Rock defeats itself.
“We want to start fast and probably take the football first,” Lutz said. “[We want to] jump on them, all over them, early. I never talk about taking guys out [of the game early]. I’ve done this long enough and if you really seriously talk about that, you’re going to be saying this is a football game in the third and fourth quarter.”
Coming off an emotional walk-off win over California (Pa.), Slippery Rock took the win but enters the matchup with Gannon (2-7, 1-6 PSAC) a little banged up.
Senior kicker Jake Chapla, who sits five points back of former Bloomsburg kicker Dan Fisher for the PSAC points record, will be a game-time decision, and Lutz said that senior running back Charles Snorweah, who has missed consecutive games, is questionable to return against the Golden Knights.
In Snorweah’s place, Lutz said that junior running back DeSean Dinkins has more than earned the starting job. Junior running back Braden Fochtman will handle the secondary carries, according to Lutz.
Against California’s heavy blitzing defense, Lutz commended Dinkins’ pass protection out of the backfield. He said that he didn’t see his junior running back miss a single block against the Vulcans.
“We really miss the one-two punch because we have to put [Sweeting] in the backfield, and we don’t want to do that,” Lutz said. “Dinkins is the No. 1 guy right now, no matter what happens.”
With Snorweah likely to miss the game, Slippery Rock will have to rely on senior quarterback Roland Rivers III. Like the team has done all season.
Rivers has thrown for 2,814 yards and 32 touchdowns while rushing for 523 yards and six more touchdowns. According to Lutz, and most statistics, he is the best quarterback in the country this season.
“Roland Rivers single-handedly improvised and made those plays at the end of both games,” Lutz said. “If he’s not the best quarterback in the country and not a Harlon Hill finalist, you tell me who’s better right now. He’s right now the best player I’ve ever been around on the offensive side of the ball.”
His four touchdown passes against the Vulcans elevated Rivers to near legendary status. His 32 touchdowns this season and 60 for a career, in just 21 games, tied former quarterbacks, Tanner Garry and Nate Crookshank, for the most touchdown passes in a single season and a career at Slippery Rock, respectively,
It hasn’t been the huge stats that has impressed Lutz the most though, he said Rivers’ continued progression and the ability to seemingly improve every game that wowed him.
“How many times have you watched him and been like, ‘what are you doing right now? what are you doing? Oh! Good job, Roland.’ I mean how many times have you said that? He’s going to the other side of the field, he’s throwing across his body. You’re never supposed to do that as a quarterback. And he completes it,” Lutz said.
To complement the best receiving core in the PSAC in juniors Jermaine Wynn, Jr. and Henry Litwin, Rivers will be getting another weapon in the passing game against Gannon.
Lutz said that freshman tight end Max Maciejewski will make his Slippery Rock debut this week, after recovering from an injury that held him out the first three-quarters of the season.
“There’s going to be a package for three or four or five plays and most of them will be in passing situations,” Lutz said. “We’re going to see him on Saturday in a very, very limited role; we want to see him ready for that [Kutztown] game.”
Another freshman has slowly made his mark on Lutz and the Slippery Rock offense.
Wide receiver Qaadir Dixon has racked up 14 catches for 142 yards and a touchdown over the past three weeks, including a season-high 78 yards against California, playing behind Litwin, Wynn and junior Cinque Sweeting.
“It was good to see Qaadir Dixon had a big play,” Lutz said. “You could see how fast he was. [Lamont] McPhatter caught him, but he’s making some plays here and there.”
With the offense scoring a PSAC leading 47 points per game, a change in the secondary has allowed the defense to lock down on opposing quarterbacks and lower its points per game allowed to 21.1, good for fifth in the conference.
“When we moved Khadir Roberts to safety, we’ve been doing a good job of locking some of these receivers down,” Lutz said. “I have to give those guys credit. Spearman, Glover, Roberts and Holt, he’s more a back guy. We play man to man, they can cover. Spearman gets a lot of credit because he’s been hurt, but he can lock people down.”
After allowing 213 yards per game in the air through the first seven weeks of the season, Slippery Rock’s secondary has clamped opposing quarterbacks to just 123 yards per game over the last two games.
While the secondary is playing at a peak level, the front seven continues to be one of the best in the conference. Junior defensive end Chad Kuhn leads the conference with 9.5 sacks while senior linebacker Brad Zaffram is second in the conference with 15.5.
Kuhn, Zaffram, de Bien, Vernick and co. will face off with true freshman quarterback Rashad McKee, who will be making his second career start.
Despite having their starting center and a pair of guards back from last season’s team, Lutz said he likes his defensive line’s chance at disrupting the Gannon offense.
Although the Gannon offense has been in a scoring drought this season, with only 21 points over the last three weeks, Lutz said his defense will have its hands full with a very tough to defend defense.
“Their offensive coordinator does a good job with their offense,” Lutz said. “He does a good job with their schematics in making them very difficult to defend. It’ll be a difficult offense with all the things they do.”
It would take a shootout to see Rivers play late into the game as Lutz said this will be a game where he does not take liberties with his star quarterback.
“You’re not going to see Roland trying to convince me to let him stay in and throw another touchdown,” Lutz said. “That’s for sure.”
Lutz said despite all the noise surrounding the game, the motivation for his team to win is simple.
“Take care of us, and you make history this week,” Lutz said. “First team in Slippery Rock history to go 10-0. I think that’s awesome.”
With a win, Slippery Rock would improve to 10-0 for the first time in team history. Rivers and Chapla, if healthy, will each have a chance to make history as well.
Kickoff is scheduled for 12 p.m.