“We don’t want a participation trophy,” said Shawn Lutz, SRU’s fourth-year head coach. “We want a championship trophy.”
Two of Division II’s remaining eleven undefeated teams will converge Saturday afternoon for the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) Championship game. For the fifth time in seven years, Slippery Rock will participate in the contest, traveling almost five hours to Kutztown University to face its biggest test this season against the Golden Bears. The Green and White is seeking its 12th league crown and first since it had gone back to back in 2014 and 2015.
Last weekend’s triumph at Gannon was the Rock’s 16th-straight PSAC West victory, rounding out a second consecutive perfect run through the division. Only California (Pa.) has done the same since the conference increased each division to eight teams.
Both squads are 10-0 for the first time in their programs’ histories, but the similarities don’t stop at the season records.
Led by three-time All-PSAC East second-team selection Collin DiGalbo, the Kutztown attack shares the ball and averages over 37 points per game. The redshirt senior DiGalbo, rested last weekend against Millersville, is Division II’s leading active passer, with 8,327 yards in 39 career contests.
“He’s why they’re undefeated,” said Lutz. “In this league, if you don’t have an elite quarterback, you’re just going to be average. The thing that creates problems with [DiGalbo] is, yeah, he can make all the throws, but they do so much quarterback running with him.”
With Harlon Hill candidate and first-team All-PSAC West passer Roland Rivers, Slippery Rock has posted 323.3 yards per game through the air, second-most in the PSAC. The passing attack ranks sixth in the entire country. The prolific senior quarterback is fourth in the country with a .726 completion percentage.
The two quarterbacks are the only active passers in all of Division II who have thrown for over 7,000 yards and ran for at least 1,000 yards in their careers. Rivers, with 83 passing touchdowns, and DiGalbo, with 68, rank first and third, respectively, among active quarterbacks in that category.
Kutztown’s rushing offense is the second best, statistically, in the PSAC. To supplement fifth-year senior tailback Abdul Hassan-Neblett, with 798 yards and nine touchdowns, the Golden Bears frequently run designed keepers for their quarterback. DiGalbo has an even 100 rushes for 430 yards and nine touchdowns. In the team’s first game, against assumption, DiGalbo busted loose for a team-long 76-yard scamper.
Along with his passing prowess, Rivers leads Slippery Rock in rushing. In 111 attempts, he’s galloped for 538 yards and six touchdowns. Senior running back Charles Snorweah, a grad transfer from Rutgers, has grinded out five yards a carry for 463 yards despite being sidelined by an injury for an extended period of time. Junior back Desean Dinkins has picked up 254 yards on the ground.
Golden Bear wideouts Jake Novak, Mason McElroy, Diego Torres and Jerry Kapp have each scored four touchdowns and caught between 22 and 31 footballs. 6’3”, 245-pound Jack Pilkerton has 406 yards and leads the receiving corps with half-a-dozen touchdowns.
“We won’t see a tight end better than No. 87,” Lutz said of Pilkerton. “They flank him out and put him in a lot of different spots. He can make the jump balls and we’ve got to know where he is.”
“Against [DiGalbo], you’ve got to man up and cover their receivers,” Lutz said of the way the Kutztown quarterback distributes the ball. “If you play zone, this guy will eat you alive.”
In redshirt juniors Henry Litwin and Jermaine Wynn Jr., the Rock has the best receiving tandem in the conference. The duo has combined for 122 grabs, 1,882 yards, and 24 touchdowns through the team’s first ten games. Cinque Sweeting has 657 receiving yards and nine touchdowns while Qaadir Dixon has 332 yards and three scores.
Under first-year offensive designer Adam Neugebauer, the attack sits first in Division II in passing effieciency (195.2), third in scoring offense (47.9 points per game) and 10th in total offense (499.0 yards per game.)
“I think, really, to be perfectly honest with you, there’s only one team that can stop our offense,” Lutz said. “And that’s ourselves. That would be us turning over the football, a rainstorm, a snowstorm. I’m not trying to be cocky about that, but we’re so explosive in so many ways.”
Rivers and company have tallied 61 touchdowns, tied for most in the PSAC.
The Golden Bear defense, having conceded a league-low 16 touchdowns, is anchored by its defensive backfield. Safety Shawn Turber-Ortiz, a redshirt junior with an All-PSAC East honor to his name, paces the team with 75 tackles and four interceptions. Senior cornerback Ahkee Cox-Cowan holds the school record for career pass breakups (49) and passes defended (61.) Junior safety Nick Palmer has snared four picks as well.
Chasing DiGalbo will be the PSAC’s sack leader in Chad Kuhn, who will be seeking to add to his total of 10.5 on the season. Linebacker Brad Zaffram leads the team in tackles with 70 and with 18 tackles for loss, he leads the conference.
Ranking second and third in the PSAC, both teams’ rush defenses are almost identical. Slippery Rock allows only 2.9 yards per opponent’s attempt while Kutztown has granted 2.8 yards a carry. Other than Cal U’s meager 50.9 ground yards given up per game, KU’s 91.5 and the Rock’s 92.7 have been the lowest in the conference.
With Kutztown hosting its first conference title game since 2011, Slippery Rock can expect the bleachers to be chock-full. Lutz believes his team will see the road game as just another challenge.
“Our guys kind of like going into another place and getting booed and kind of being the underdogs. They thrive on stuff like that… They won’t back down and they won’t be intimidated.”
Accolades don’t matter right now for Lutz, who said the season starts now for his group.
“Right now, we’re 0-0,” Lutz said. “What are the odds of us winning a national championship? There’s only going to be one satisfied with their season. But, winning a PSAC championship is something you’ll never forget.”