In the year off between his time at Valdosta State and Slippery Rock, SRU senior quarterback Roland Rivers III could not physically compete on the football field. Sidelined with a shoulder injury, Rivers was forced to find a new way to get on the field.
He found himself able to stay on the football field, and live out a dream, by playing the popular video game, Madden.
“I injured my shoulder in 2016 and missed all of 2017, and I played so much Madden, just envisioning myself out there on the field,” Rivers said. “I would play practice mode with all 32 teams, an hour, two, three at a time. Just running plays and envisioning myself out there. So, I like to think of myself as a cheat code.”
Against Notre Dame College in the NCAA Division II quarterfinals at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium Saturday, Rivers completed 21 of 28 passes for 383 yards and six touchdown passes. In the first half.
It was about as close to a Madden performance as a quarterback in college can get.
Finishing the day with 436 passing yards and six passing touchdowns, along with two more rushing touchdowns, Rivers brought Slippery Rock back from a 14 point first quarter deficit to defeat Notre Dame, 65-59, and advance to the Final Four for the first time since 1998.
“We’re one game now, one game now from playing for the National Championship,” Slippery Rock coach Shawn Lutz said.
While the high-octane offenses combined for 124 points, the Slippery Rock defense was counted on to step up on the game-deciding drive late in the fourth quarter.
After Slippery Rock failed to convert on a fourth and three at the Notre Dame 35-yard line, the NDC offense needed to travel 65 yards in just under two minutes, with two timeouts remaining, to win the game.
Slippery Rock junior linebacker Shane Schuback, who was thrust into just his second career start at SRU, gave a lot of credit to SRU defensive coordinator Domenick Razzano in making sure the defense held itself responsible.
“We really came together on that last drive,” Schuback said. “Brad [Zaffram] was yelling, ‘how bad do you want it?’ to everybody. I said, ‘I want it bad.’ I think everybody else did that same thing.”
Despite a quick first down, the Slippery Rock defense forced Brimm into three incompletions on the final drive. Set up on the SRU 45-yard line, Notre Dame stared down a fourth and 10 with under 40 seconds on the clock.
With the season on the line, Schuback said the defense didn’t tense. He said the defense felt good despite the back and forth nature of the game.
“After halftime, we didn’t really change much,” Schuback said. “We come out and coach Razzano said the same thing, ‘just stop the run.’ We really stayed calm, and we didn’t flinch when adversity struck.”
It was Schuback who found himself in a position to make the defensive play of the game, which came after a miscue on the previous defensive drive.
“It’s actually funny because right before that last drive, they ran that running back out of the backfield and that was my guy,” Schuback said. “I took my eyes off him for a minute, trying to look for the football and make a big play, but the running back made a bigger one.”
When junior defensive end Chad Kuhn crashed into Brim, causing him to release the ball earlier than expected, Schuback looked up and found the ball floating in the air right above him. He caught the ball, cradling it to his body to cement the arguably the biggest win in Slippery Rock’s history.
Schuback said that, besides the birth of his son, clenching onto that game-winning football is one of the greatest feelings he’s experienced. But without one of his coaches, the play might have never happened.
“I was really kicking myself on the sideline and our linebackers coach, coach Hull, came up to me and said, ‘listen, man, we’ve been relying on you a lot these past couple weeks and I know you’re going to make a big play for us,'” Schuback said.
Schuback was on the receiving end of Notre Dame’s star sophomore running back Jaleel McLaughlin’s great play earlier in the fourth quarter, but he made the greatest play when the defense was needed most.
Despite making just his second start of the season, Lutz can’t imagine the defense without him now.
“Shane didn’t start the entire season,” Lutz said. “He started his first playoff game against Shepherd. He’s someone who sticks with it no matter what. Now, we’re not kicking him out of the starting lineup.”
In the face of the highest possible stakes, Lutz said he was simply being a cheerleader. Trying to stay calm and collected himself, he said the players stepped up when it mattered.
“Against great football teams, you’re going to have ups and downs,” Lutz said. “Coach Razzano won’t be happy with the way the defense played, [giving up] a lot of big plays, but they got a stop when they needed to get a stop.”
Despite three Notre Dame offensive touchdowns of at least 65 yards and numerous chunk plays, the Slippery Rock defense accomplished a goal of limiting McLaughlin’s impact. The star sophomore rushed for a season second-worst total of 126 yards.
While Notre Dame coach Mike Jacobs felt his offense did a good job in the game, he said there was a stretch in the second quarter where the offense was unable to make an impact on the ground.
“I thought offensively we did a nice job staying in rhythm,” Jacobs said. “There were times in the second quarter when we didn’t run the ball very well. In the second half, our offense operated and functioned within the game plan.”
With a strong second half that included a rushing and receiving touchdown, McLaughlin showcased what has allowed him to become a back-to-back Harlon Hill finalist.
Despite 160 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns for the nation’s leading rusher, Rivers outdueled the Harlon Hill third-place finisher from last season. Lutz challenged the NCAA to find a better football player in the nation than his star quarterback.
“If Roland Rivers doesn’t win the Harlon Hill, you tell me a better football player in all of Division II,” Lutz said. “I usually don’t say this, I’m not campaigning, but he’s the best football player in the country.”
“If roland rivers doesn’t win the harlon hill, you tell me a better football player in all of division II Football,” Lutz said.
Despite the huge day from Rivers and the Slippery Rock offense and the matchup between two Harlon Hill contenders, it was Notre Dame sophomore quarterback Chris Brimm who made the first impact on the game.
“I give [Notre Dame] a little credit, they made some plays in the air that really surprised me,” Lutz said. “I give credit to the quarterback, I knew he could make some plays. I think he grew up.”
Before McLaughlin could make an impact on the ground, Brimm connected with tight end Zaire Mitchell for a 57-yard touchdown strike, quickly followed by an 81-yard pass play to wide receiver Jeremy Hamilton. A one-yard dive from McLaughlin set up Notre Dame, 14-0, less than five minutes into the game.
Even with an early lead, Jacobs said he was prepared for the game to even out, with the caliber of both teams in play.
“We always talk about how the games are going to ebb and flow,” Jacobs said. “At this point in the year when you’re in the Elite 8 and playing a Harlon Hill finalist, you know they’re gonna make plays.”
Over the next 10 minutes of game time, the Slippery Rock offense battled back, exploding for 28 points.
Rivers connected with junior wide receiver Henry Litwin for 70 and seven-yard touchdown strikes and fellow junior wide receiver Jermaine Wynn, Jr. for 14 and five-yard touchdown passes.
— Karl Ludwig (@LudwigKarl8) December 7, 2019
With three wide receivers eclipsing 80 yards in receiving against Notre Dame, the best wide receiver trio in the nation helped make Rivers’ day easier. With the duo of Litwin and Wynn both over 1,300 yards receiving this season, Litwin said the duo push each other to get better.
“With our players and other receivers like Jermaine Wynn and Cinque Sweeting, they just motivate me,” Litwin said. “If I see Jermaine score, I’m like, ‘OK, now it’s my turn.’ It’s like a competition between us, and that’s what fuels us.”
While McLaughlin dominates the headlines for Notre Dame, ND’s senior wide receiver Marvelle Ross has been one of the most dynamic receivers in Division II football.
According to Jacobs, Ross will graduate in a couple of weeks, and Lutz said he was happy he’d never have to face the dynamic playmaker again.
“In my stupidity of saying I’m going to kickoff to him, look at what he did to us,” Lutz said. “I thought we did a good job squib kicking it. They have some big-time playmakers over there, and my hats off to coach Jacobs and the whole football team.”
Squib kicking to Ross for a majority of the game, Lutz decided to kick the ball off to Ross following Litwin’s second touchdown. Ross said he was surprised to have the ball kicked to him, but he took it 96 yards for a touchdown.
Leading 35-31 at that point, three more Slippery Rock touchdowns, including two more from Rivers, pushed the lead to 49-31 at halftime. Lutz said he believed the lead was safe.
— Karl Ludwig (@LudwigKarl8) December 7, 2019
“When you get to playoff time, there’s not a lot of difference between two teams,” Lutz said. “I’ll be perfectly honest, I really thought at halftime that we had it. I really felt good, and that’s why I take my hat off to Notre Dame.”
Slippery Rock received the ball to start the second half, and a successful fake punt executed by junior linebacker Terrell Gabriel and junior running back Braden Fochtman set up a 32-yard field goal from senior kicker Jake Chapla.
With the way Notre Dame’s special teams were playing in the game, Lutz said he was ready to call the fake punt when the moment arose.
“We knew they come hard on their fake punts and we had that ready to go,” Lutz said. “The fake punt was really something that … we needed it at that point. We got a field goal out of it.”
Notre Dame touchdowns from McLaughlin, Ross and Mitchell over the course of the third quarter and into the early fourth quarter cut the Slippery Rock lead to 59-52 with roughly 10 minutes left in the game.
A quick three and out from Slippery Rock on the next possession led to a Jake Chapla punt and would have given a huge momentum swing to an already surging ND team.
But on the ensuing punt, Ross bobbled the ball after a booming kick from Chapla. He was unable to hold onto the ball, and senior wide receiver Reggie Mays, Jr. jumped on the ball to give Slippery Rock possession on the Notre Dame 15-yard line.
Rivers scored his eighth touchdown of the day on the ensuing drive, driving into the end zone on a one-yard rush. The Chapla extra point attempt was blocked, however, and Notre Dame trailed by just 13 points.
Despite being down by 21 at different points in the game, Jacobs credited his team’s resolve in fighting back in the second half.
“I didn’t think we ever quit today, so I’m certainly proud of their fight,” Jacobs said. “I’m extremely appreciative of the seniors in this program who played their last game today and really have given us their everything. Today was our 28th game in two years, and that’s a lot of football.”
The lead was cut to six points with a tad under seven minutes left in the game when McLaughlin got past Schuback for a 24-yard touchdown grab that left Schuback with a low morale.
Slippery Rock responded with a drive that reached Notre Dame’s 35-yard line. However, on fourth down, a pass intended for Litwin fell incomplete.
With under two minutes remaining, the Slippery Rock defense took the field. And it responded.
The Slippery Rock offense iced the game with a first down picked up off a Notre Dame offsides penalty and went into the victory formation. For the first time since 1998, SRU advanced to the national semifinal.
With sky high expectations entering the season, Rivers feels as though the team is not quite finished yet.
“We knew the type of team that we had coming into the year,” Rivers said. “And our goals have stayed the same. Everything we do has been with a mindset of being in this opportunity that we have now. From weight lifting to meetings, everything we’ve done has been relentless in the pursuit of being in this position. The job isn’t done yet.”
As the best quarterback in Division II football, and arguably the most dominant across all of college football, Rivers continued to extend his lead across an array of statistics and broke a few more SRU milestones.
Rivers credits first-year offensive coordinator Adam Neugebauer for preparing him to play each week.
“Coach [Neugebauer] does a great job staying in my ear and just making sure that I’m doing things to lead this team every game, every drive, no matter what the situation is,” Rivers said. “He’s a very positive person and we should all be very thankful to have him as the coach.”
Rivers became the first quarterback in school history to pass for 4,000 yards and the first to throw for 50 touchdowns. In the past two playoff games alone, Rivers has thrown for 852 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Edinboro as a team threw for 10 touchdowns during the entire 2019 season.
As a part of Slippery Rock football for 24 years, Lutz felt confident in naming Rivers as the best player he’s ever been around.
“No. 1,” Lutz said. “I don’t even have to say it. He was responsible for eight touchdowns today, two rushing and threw for six. He’s the best I’ve ever been around, and the biggest thing, he’s a good person and a good leader.”
As part of the most dynamic offense in Division II football, Litwin, Wynn and Sweeting have continued to thrive and grow together.
Litwin and Wynn both broke the Slippery Rock single-season reception record, their 92 and 90 catches, respectively, leading all SRU players. Their 1,360 and 1,320 receiving yards, respectively, rank second and third in school history, just over 100 yards behind the school record.
Sweeting needs just 135 yards to reach 1,000 this season, which would give Slippery Rock an unprecedented three 1,000 yard receivers.
The high-powered passing offense has helped push Slippery Rock to a 13-0 record and a spot in the NCAA Division II national semifinals against the No. 2 scoring offense in the country in No. 4 Minnesota State, Mankato.
For clinching the No. 2 seed in the reseeding after the quarterfinals, Slippery Rock earned a home game against Minnesota State.
Harlon Hill finalist running back Nate Gunn and the Mavericks will travel to Slippery Rock for the biggest game in SRU history Saturday.
With just four teams left in the country, Lutz isn’t happy yet.
“At the end of the day, there’s only going to be one happy team,” Lutz said. “And you guys know who that’s going to be; it’s going to be the national champs.”