On the brink of greatness

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The Slippery Rock football team last lost a football game on Dec. 1, 2018.

On the road in South Euclid, Ohio, Slippery Rock lost to Notre Dame (Oh.), 21-17, in the NCAA quarterfinals.

On Saturday, Dec. 7, Slippery Rock avenged that loss with a historic 65-59 victory over Notre Dame to advance to the NCAA semifinals for the first time in 21 years. In the process, Slippery Rock earned the No. 2 seed in the NCAA’s re-ranking, which allowed SRU to host the game.

Unbeaten Minnesota State, Mankato stands in the way of Slippery Rock’s first national championship appearance in school history.

Following a match up with Notre Dame’s Harlon Hill finalist running back Jaleel McLaughlin, Slippery Rock will face off against another Harlon Hill finalist in Minnesota State running back Nate Gunn.

Slippery Rock head coach Shawn Lutz hopes the game against a run-heavy offense in Notre Dame can lead to better results against Gunn.

“Notre Dame had a big offensive line and liked to run the football,” Lutz said. “So, hopefully, we’ll be a little better that way. Besides the 67-yard run McLaughlin had, I thought we did a good job on him. I hope that that could make a difference.”

Fresh off the getting the better of McLaughlin, Slippery Rock senior quarterback looks to cement the Harlon Hill for himself.

With over 400 passing yards last week and eight total touchdowns, Rivers continued a near unparalleled season. He’s three total touchdowns and five passing touchdowns from breaking the Division II football records for total and passing touchdowns in a season.

Rivers has led the Slippery Rock offense, under the tutelage of first-year offensive coordinator Adam Neugebauer, to unprecedented heights.

Slippery Rock is one point from breaking the single-season points record (633), 150 yards from breaking the single-season offensive yardage record (6,864) and one touchdown away from the total touchdowns scored in a season record (87).

With the No. 1 scoring offense (SRU) facing off against the No. 2 scoring offense (MSU), Rivers and the offense are in position to shatter those records.

However, Lutz doesn’t expect to see another game like Notre Dame.

“If we win, I don’t expect it to be [high scoring],” Lutz said. “I know it sounds crazy, but I don’t know if this is the type of game where they can put up that type of offense. I think if we’re gonna win, the final score will be like 31-27.”

Allowing just 12.7 points per game, good for third-best in the nation, Lutz said the Minnesota State defensive line is big and physical. Ultimately, he said this game will be won or lost in the trenches.

Lutz saw first hand how Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference schools fare when matched up with big, physical offensive and defensive lines from Division II powerhouses.

“When California (Pa.) went three straight years in the national semifinal, I remember watching them against Valdosta State in one game,” Lutz said. “The other game, I think, was in Minnesota. My point is this: they got blown out in two of those games. I remember Mike Kellar telling me, ‘Shawn, the difference this team of the year isn’t about our skill or speed, it’s about the offensive and defensive lines.'”

Lutz said the way the two offenses, ignoring everything besides play style, could not play more different systems.

“It’s the top-scoring offense versus the number two scoring offense in the country,” Lutz said. “It’s such a contrasting style. One is a run-heavy, two tight end set in Minnesota State. They’re gonna pound you. They’ll lull you to sleep and throw up to that big All-American receiver.”

With a big, fast offensive line already opening holes for Gunn, Lutz said Gunn has the patience and poise to wait in the backfield for holes to open for him.

“Probably the best we’ve faced,” Lutz said. “He’s a Wes Hills size. He doesn’t have elite speed, but he so patient with his vision and setting up. He’ll stop in the backfield and wait until that little hole opens up. He’s a downhill runner; he’s between the tackles.”

Gunn averages nearly seven yards per carry, and Lutz said limiting those chunk plays on first down will go a long way in deciding the outcome of the game.

“We’re in for a long day if they win offensive possessions,” Lutz said. “It’s not third down being key, it’s first down. If they get six or seven yards on first down, and we’re playing second and three the whole time on defense, we’re in for a long day. We’ve got to win first down.”

While Minnesota State runs a two quarterback set, with both Ryan Schlichte and JD Ekowa attempting at least 125 passing attempts, Lutz said the quarterback won’t win the game for MSU. He couldn’t say the same for Gunn though.

In the event Slippery Rock does lockdown Gunn though, Lutz said it would be easy for Minnesota State to run a one-man route and just toss the ball up for All-American wide receiver Shane Zylstra.

The 6’5″ Zylstra has nearly 1,400 receiving yards at over 20 yards per catch. His 15 touchdowns are two more than the third leading receivers’ catches this season.

With the ground and pound attitude spearheaded by Gunn and the big, bruising offensive line, Lutz expects Minnesota State to exert its will and aim for long, time-consuming possessions.

“They’re gonna try to get the clock to two seconds each snap,” Lutz said. “They’re not going to be too worried or scared, but why would they give us offensive possessions?”

While Minnesota will run the ball a lot, Lutz said his offense will stick to its Air Raid roots. But he did say the run game will need to get going to allow the passing game to open up. Especially with the defensive scheme that Minnesota State deploys.

“They have a five-man box because they walk the outside linebackers out on our number two wide receivers and they have a safety over the top on both sides,” Lutz said. “So, my point is, if you’ve got a five-man box, you’ve got to be able to run the football.”

Fresh off back-to-back 100-yard games, senior running back Charles Snorweah will play a pivotal role in unlocking the Slippery Rock offense’s full potential.

With the stakes of the game, Lutz said he expects Rivers to be used often in the run game. In addition to continuing his aerial attack on opposing defenses.

With the Minnesota State defense dialed into Rivers, Lutz said his own defense will need to limit the impact of Gunn. As has been the case against Shepherd and Notre Dame, forcing a turnover or two will be pivotal, he said.

While Lutz said Minnesota State isn’t too far off the teams he faced off against as an assistant on the 1998 semifinals squad, he said Slippery Rock has adapted to the times.

“Minnesota State’s football team is kind of like the caliber we played back [in 1998],” Lutz said. “It was run-oriented, it was physical, you’ve got to win the game up front with ball control and things like that. Now, where it’s changed, it’s an air raid system with the spread. You’ve got smaller guys playing space exploiting mismatches.”

Back in the semifinals for the first time since then, Rivers touched on how tested his veteran team has been down the stretch and really throughout the season. A stark contrast for a Minnesota State team that has blown out its opponents all season.

“They haven’t had a close game,” Lutz said. “We had three regular-season games, Kutztown was four and the two playoff games were five and six. So, we’ve had six close games this season. They’ve had one, and we’ve had six, so that shows you how elite they are.”

Despite entering the game as the higher seed and with a home matchup, Minnesota State is a two-score favorite. Something that Lutz said does not phase this team.

“We’re the underdogs, but we still believe we can win this game,” Lutz said. “There’s not one guy on this team who is going to be scared, intimidated or doesn’t think we can win.”

Despite the historic run Slippery Rock has had this season, breaking numerous school records en route to the best season in school history, Lutz said this team isn’t finished yet.

The time for sitting back and reflecting will take place after the season. Right now, Lutz said he just wants to do everything he possibly can to prepare this team for each game.

Just because Slippery Rock has advanced to the national semifinal, doesn’t make this season a success to Lutz.

“I haven’t looked back and been like, ‘no matter what happens, we had a good year,’ type of thing,” Lutz said. “I promise you, if we don’t come out of this game I want to, I’m going to be upset. I’ll be miserable because you don’t know if you’re ever going to get to this point again.”

With a shot at a spot in the national championship on the line, Lutz knows exactly what’s at stake.

Kickoff is scheduled for 12:34 p.m. and will be streamed on the ESPN app.

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Karl is a senior sport management major and communication minor entering his fifth semester on The Rocket staff. He will serve as the sports editor after previously serving as the assistant sports editor. During his time with The Rocket, he has covered every sport that SRU has to offer, and with the lack of sports this coming semester, he is looking forward to finding alternative ways to deliver sports news to the SRU community. After graduation, he hopes to work in the sports writing field.

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