The football fell incomplete, bouncing along the wet turf of Mueller Field. With 19 seconds left on the scoreboard, the game wasn’t quite over. But the season was.
The Slippery Rock football team walked off the field, heads bowed in the rain, as the Notre Dame (Oh.) football team came out onto the field to take the victory formation. A 21-17 loss in South Euclid, Ohio ended the surprising run SRU had taken through the Division II playoffs.
Despite the loss to the No. 1 team in Super Region One, Slippery Rock felt like it was the best team on the field that day and the season-ending loss was a tough pill to swallow.
“The whole offseason they talked about the feeling they had coming off the field,” Slippery Rock head coach Shawn Lutz said. “They really thought they were the better team. Give Notre Dame credit, they were on their game that Saturday, but they’ve had a sour taste in their mouth.”
Notre Dame defeated Kutztown early Saturday afternoon, setting up a potential Regional Final rematch with Slippery Rock. If SRU could get by Shepherd in its own second-round match.
Record-breaking days from Slippery Rock senior quarterback Roland Rivers III and junior wide receiver Jermaine Wynn, Jr. powered SRU past Shepherd, 51-30, and set up a matchup over a year in the making.
“You can’t put together a better scenario for a Division II football game,” Lutz said. “You got a classic game last year with two good teams battling to the end and get a rematch like this. It’s an awesome script.”
While last year’s matchup revolved around a pair of star running backs in Notre Dame’s Jaleel McLaughlin and Slippery Rock’s Wes Hills, this year’s game will center around Rivers and McLaughlin.
Both players were announced as finalists for the 2019 Harlon Hill Award, the second nomination for McLaughlin who finished third last season.
Rivers has been the best quarterback in Division II football this season, leading the nation in passing efficiency, total offense, passing touchdowns and points responsible. He ranks third in passing yards and fourth in completion percentage.
Through 12 games, Rivers has completed 71.4 percent of his passes for 3,825 yards and 44 touchdowns to just six interceptions. The dual-threat senior from Ellenwood, Georgia has also rushed for 624 yards and six more touchdowns.
This season, Rivers has broken the single-season records in passing yards and touchdowns, completions and total offense.
Down the stretch last season, in games with colder weather, the offense did not reach the high-octane numbers it had reached at previous points in the year. Lutz feels as though the offense is more prepared to play in cold weather games this season, with the cold, wintry weather finally setting in.
“We practice in [cold weather],” Lutz said. “We were out there last night, and we’ve been out there like that the past three weeks.”
In the cold-weather games so far this season, Rivers and the offense have delivered through the blistering winds and biting temperatures.
While Rivers was an all-conference quarterback last season, he’s taken a huge leap forward this season. According to Lutz, Rivers’ ability to take the safe play over the explosive play has allowed him to become an all-around better quarterback.
While Rivers leads the nation in quarterback statistics, his Harlon Hill counterpart in McLaughlin is once again the best running back in Division II football.
McLaughlin leads the nation in carries, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. The sophomore from Marshville, North Carolina has posted back-to-back 2,000-yard seasons in his Notre Dame career now.
With the prominence of McLaughlin in Notre Dame’s offense, Lutz commended the star running back. Lutz said their offense will run through McLaughlin.
“Offensively, they’re experienced as you can get,” Lutz said. “Their running back is as good as it gets; all of our attention will be toward stopping him. Even on 3-and-7, they don’t have a problem giving him the ball. That’ll be our emphasis.”
In last season’s matchup, McLaughin rushed for 172 yards, but it took 36 carries to get there. His 4.8 yards per carry in the game was nearly two yards lower than his season average. Lutz said the goal Saturday will be containing McLaughlin before he can get into the secondary.
“He had 36 carries last year against us, and we didn’t do that bad of a job containing him,” Lutz said. “4.8 yards per rush and maybe a long of 50 or 60 yards. You just gotta stay in your gap, get downhill and just gang tackle him. Don’t think just because one guy has him that he’s down.”
Although Lutz said Notre Dame doesn’t have the most potent passing offense his team has faced this season, he pointed to a couple of playmakers who excel in space.
“They’re still capable of throwing the ball, and [Marvelle Ross] is their playmaker,” Lutz said. “In the return game and everything else, he’s the guy they’re going to try to get the ball. They have a [Zaire Mitchell], who’s going to be the best looking tight end I think I’ve ever seen in the Division II level.”
In an offense that has run the ball 551 times this season, Ross has caught 57 balls for 890 yards and six touchdowns. As an all-purpose threat, he’s been one of the best return men in Division II football. He’s returned kickoffs 511 yards at a clip of 28.4 per return and took two returns back for a touchdown.
He’s joined in the receiving corps by one of the biggest tight ends in Division II football.
Continuing a trend of matching up with strong tight ends, following Kutztown’s Jack Pilkerton in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championship game, Mitchell will faceoff with Slippery Rock’s much-improved secondary. Mitchell, a 250-pound, 6’7″ junior tight end, has caught 37 balls for 474 yards and four touchdowns.
While Hills is no longer around to duel with McLaughin (154 yards and a touchdown in last season’s meeting), senior running back Charles Snorweah enters the game on a hot streak.
He posted his best game in a Rock jersey against Shepherd, running for 163 yards and two touchdowns and catching along with a 29-yard touchdown reception. Snorweah’s two best games this season have come against Indiana (Pa.) and Shepherd.
With Snorweah’s backfield partner, junior running back DeSean Dinkins, out for the Notre Dame game, Lutz said the offense will roll with junior running back Braden Fochtman as Snorweah’s backup.
“We’re gonna with Fochtman, we have a package that we can use with Cinque Sweeting and if it gets really bad, we’ll have to go with Cam Merrett,” Lutz said. “If we have to, we’ll go empty set and have Roland run the ball.”
Whoever is carrying the ball, Lutz is confident in his team’s ability to effectively run the ball against Notre Dame. With a max of three games remaining this season and each game serving as, “win or go home,” Lutz said he’s not holding anything back anymore.
“We’ve proven that we can run the football,” Lutz said. “We’ve proven that against some of the best teams we’ve faced this season which we wondered early in the season.”
But if the run game stalls, Slippery Rock boasts the best passing attack in the country. With a Harlon Hill finalist at quarterback, his primary weapons rank inside the top-12 in each major receiving category.
Fresh off a Slippery Rock and NCAA record-breaking performance against Shepherd, in which he caught 18 balls for 229 yards and two touchdowns, Wynn is close to setting another SRU record.
With 83 catches this season, Wynn has tied former Rock wide receiver Greg Hopkins for the most in a single season.
Not far behind, Wynn’s partner Henry Litwin has caught 80 passes this season. Litwin and Wynn both have the opportunity to break Hopkins’ record.
With Wynn catching 83 balls for 1,233 and 13 touchdowns and Litwin catching 80 balls for 1,157 yards and 16 touchdowns, the duo has become the first pair with 1,000 yards in program history.
With two high-powered offenses taking the field, the defense will be tasked with slowing down elite, skilled playmakers.
Lutz said that Notre Dame lost a stud defensive end from last season but returns a majority of its defense. He pointed to the Notre Dame defense being solid at all levels: defensive line, linebackers and secondary.
“Defensively, they’re stout,” Lutz said. “[Sha’Haun Williams] is a stud, their linebackers can run and their corners can cover. It’s going to be a great test for us.”
Williams has been a force on Notre Dame’s defensive line, racking up 51 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. He’ll be tasked with slowing down Rivers and Lutz recommended that the NDC defense not let Rivers out of the pocket.
With Rivers as the focal point of SRU’s offense, Lutz said Notre Dame will attempt to limit Rivers’ impact, but he said that defenses have been trying to do that all year.
While Rivers is the obvious catalyst of the Slippery Rock offense, McLaughlin is the same for Notre Dame.
With a veteran defense led by a veteran front seven and improved secondary, Lutz said the front seven will need to contain McLaughlin. A secondary that returns star senior cornerback Eric Glover-Williams, it will be crucial to lockdown Ross and Mitchell.
With both defenses forcing five turnovers in their games last week, Lutz said the turnover margin would go a long way in determining the outcome of such a close game.
According to Lutz, Slippery Rock and Notre Dame match up like mirror images on paper, but he said that NDC has an advantage in special teams. SRU struggled against Shepherd in the return game, a trend that’s continued all season.
“Notre Dame is the special teams’ group that we’ll face this year,” Lutz said. “We can’t have that lapse like last week. We can’t give up field position and have returned kickoffs. Their special teams blocked four or five or six kicks this year. We can’t have that happen, so we’re gonna have some starters play special teams.”
Turnovers and getting ahead in special teams will be keys to the game, Lutz said. With his own special teams struggling throughout the season, he said that gambling on fourth down wasn’t out of the question.
“You know I’m not afraid to go for it on fourth down,” Lutz said. “We’re No. 1 in the country on fourth downs. When you gamble and you make it, you’re the best, but it is a tough decision to make. We’re gonna go down being very aggressive.”
Lutz said he believes the game will come down to the end of the game. With the way Notre Dame has trailed in games this season and fought its way back to win, Lutz said to never count NDC out.
With only one game played against Notre Dame in program history–the loss last season–Lutz said the intensity and emotion around this game rivals that of an IUP week.
“It’s very focused,” Lutz said.” They’ve wanted this one. It feels a bit like an IUP week. They’re treating this like it’s a… I don’t want to use that R-word, but they know what’s at stake.”
With a trip to the Final Four and a 13-0 start for the first time in school history on the line, a lot rides on this game. Even with the heightened stakes, Lutz said his team is taking this game personally.
Unlike last season being on the road, Notre Dame comes to Mihalik-Thompson Stadium this season.
Lutz likes to think of himself as an aggressive coach and for a second, he considered whether he’d go for a two-point conversion to win the game.
“Would I go for two to win it? Nah, with our ball team, I’d take it to overtime.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 12 p.m.