The official capacity of Andre Reed Stadium, the home of 2019 Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference runner-up Kutztown University (sorry, couldn’t resist), is 5,600 people. 5,817 people packed into the tightly compacted facility on Nov. 16, 2019; a screaming mass of maroon and gold huddled beneath the monstrous maroon press box over the home stands, hundreds who lined the chain-link fences just outside the track and the brave souls who trekked across the state to support their team in the small bleachers directly across from the ravenous home crowd.
For the sake of clarity, the food truck parked parallel to the opposing side ran out of food by halftime, the winding lines reached the window just to find out that the hot dogs and hamburgers were sold out. A much-needed cup of hot chocolate was impossible to find. Alas, that’s beside the point.
Nestled in the middle of the Kutztown campus, Andre Reed Stadium is sandwiched by a parking lot on the home side and some tennis courts and the Kutztown Student Recreation Center on the other, but with both endzones open to the elements, the winds gusting at 20 miles an hour made the brisk 37-degree afternoon feel particularly arctic.
Even with the sun beating down from a nearly cloudless, bright blue sky, it was freezing. It was perfect for the PSAC title game between Slippery Rock University and Kutztown.
Slippery Rock defensive coordinator Domenick Razzano called it a beautiful day, a true college football atmosphere. For three hours, er, two hours and 55 minutes, SRU and Kutztown were at the center of Division II football and the fight for the PSAC title.
Slippery Rock’s first drive of the second half started off in typical fashion. SRU quarterback Roland Rivers III found two of his favorite wide receivers, Cinque Sweeting and Jermaine Wynn, Jr., for connections of eight and 11 yards, respectively. Wynn’s 11-yard catch and run turned into a 26-yard pick up after a personal foul on a Kutztown defender. Suddenly, SRU was on the Kutztown 41 yard line.
A designed run for Rivers lost four yards, and he was sacked on the following play. On 3rd and 18, Rivers found his favorite target, Henry Litwin, for four yards. Slippery Rock head coach Shawn Lutz called on the punt team, and Kutztown got the ball back.
The trio of Kutztown quarterback Collin DiGalbo, running back Abdul-Hassan Neblett and tight end Jack Pilkerton pushed the Golden Bears’ offense to the opposing end zone in eight plays, and Kutztown took a 35-21 lead over Slippery Rock midway through the third quarter.
Down 14, uncharted waters for a team that hadn’t trailed once after halftime in any game all season, in a hostile environment, Slippery Rock’s offense took the field again. With the Harlon Hill favorite under center and one of the most explosive offenses in all of college football, no one on the SRU sideline was sweating… yet. And it didn’t have to do with the blustery winds either.
A Rivers-Litwin connection once again pushed Slippery Rock into Kutztown territory, but on the very next play, a deep shot from Rivers was caught in the swirling wind and fell into the outstretched arms of a Kutztown defender. The first turnover of the day for Rivers.
Gulp. Is it feeling hot out here?
Despite an undefeated regular season, Slippery Rock had hosted the PSAC title game against West Chester University the prior season. Shuffles papers awkwardly. So, SRU was forced to drive across the state for a rematch of the 2011 PSAC title game.
A lot was on the line for Slippery Rock — and for Kutztown — as, despite going unbeaten all season, SRU had risen only as high as 8th in the country. Kutztown lingered behind at 13th, so the winner of the contest likely picked up a first-round bye in the national playoffs.
“We were both in to make the playoff, but if we won, we had a chance to be the No. 1 seed,” Lutz said. “There was so much on the line.”
However, according to Lutz, the biggest pressure for Slippery Rock was continuing its unbeaten streak. No team in the history of the program had ever gone 11-0.
While Slippery Rock and Kutztown had met in an ill-fated 2011 clash, the most recent contest had come in 2017, when a 42-34 Kutztown victory knocked SRU out of the national playoff picture. So, it was personal. It was also the biggest game Lutz has ever coached.
“It goes down in my book, in my career over 20 years, as the No. 1 game I’ve ever coached,” Lutz said. “Because of everything we overcame. We never took the lead until 20 or 30 seconds left in the game.”
For Razzano, the game was so much more than a game. It was reaching the peak of a mountain that hadn’t been climbed in years (just four years but it felt like 40), escaping the snowstorm to find the sun shining on a beautifully cold Andre Reed Stadium.
“We wanted that championship so bad,” Razzano said. “Before the game, you sit there and you think, ‘it’s right there in front of you.’ My God, you’re thinking about, ‘we can go after this, we can reach our hands out and take this.'”
A 2009 graduate, Razzano returned to Slippery Rock in 2014 as the linebackers coach before being promoted to co-defensive coordinator in 2015. SRU won the PSAC title in 2014 and 2015, and for Razzano, it felt like the norm. This was how every season was going to feel. Well, not exactly.
Slippery Rock let 7-4 and 8-3 seasons in 2016 and 2017 go by, finishing in the middle of the PSAC-West both seasons, before getting blown out by West Chester in the title game in 2018. Suddenly, it was tough to remember that triumph over West Chester in 2015.
As Razzano said, that title was right there for taking. Who wanted it more?
With two Harlon Hill nominated quarterbacks under center, the first half went about as well as expected defensively. As Lutz put it, whoever had the ball led.
However, the Slippery Rock defense was up to snuff in the first couple of possessions, outside of allowing a 21 yard dash to Neblett on Kutztown’s second possession, holding the Golden Bears to just six plays and two punts. Razzano was feeling pretty good.
However, that’s where the game went off the rails, turning into a bit of backyard football.
“They scored on that third series, I think they drove 70, 75, 80 yards and that was the first of five consecutive series that they scored,” Razzano said.
DiGalbo found Pilkerton for an eight-yard touchdown to open the scoring toward the end of the first quarter, but Rivers found Litwin on a 22-yard rainbow toss to even the score before the end of the quarter. Buckle up.
Slippery Rock and Kutztown traded scores, seven touchdowns being scored after the 3:09 mark of the first quarter. With a couple of ticks under two minutes in the half, Rivers found Wynn in the back of the endzone, their second touchdown connection of the half, and SRU evened the score at 21 all with just 1:30 left on the clock.
The ensuing Kutztown drive was the first time Razzano felt frustrated.
Of course, Kutztown returned the kickoff 40 yards, the Golden Bears starting at midfield. Razzano lamented the last Kutztown possession of the first half, remembering the Slippery Rock defense forcing a 3rd and 8 from the SRU 13 yard line with 33 seconds in the half. The Golden Bears’ kicker was a question mark and forcing a fourth down could have provided a way for SRU to get to the locker rooms all tied up.
Razzano said that Kutztown called a play on that third down, and he called a timeout to talk things over.
“I knew exactly what they were doing because immediately before we called a timeout, they showed us their formation, and they made a shift in that formation,” Razzano said. “They motioned to an empty set. So when we were in the huddle with the guys, we called a pressure. I knew they were going to motion to an empty set when they came out, and they did, so went sent a sixth man pressure and hit the quarterback. He threw a helluva pass to the back of the end zone to the tight end.”
DiGalbo dropped back, evaded pressure, and fired a bullet to Pilkerton in the back of the end zone. Kutztown retook the lead and had scored touchdowns on four consecutive possessions.
Lutz felt some pressure at the half, and after a tough first half, there was a tiny bit of tension in the locker room. Some calls hadn’t gone Slippery Rock’s way, the DiGalbo-Pilkerton connection had struck twice in the first half and SRU was hundreds of miles from home.
However, Slippery Rock was down just one score, and Razzano made sure to tell the defense that Kutztown wasn’t taking SRU to the woodshed. It was a battle, and he felt that his defense was the more talented unit.
“It’s one thing if you’re in a game, getting physically manhandled,” Razzano said. “They’re running all over you, receivers are just making better plays over the defensive backs. That wasn’t the case. We were making mistakes, and they were capitalizing on those mistakes.”
Defensive end Chad Kuhn, linebacker Brad Zaffram and safety Dalton Holt headlined a talented, passionate unit, but it was another voice that rallied the team before heading back out onto the field.
“I remember [Khadir] Roberts stepped up, and he said the same thing to the defense,” Razzano said. “‘Hey, guys, we gotta stop panicking. We gotta stop blaming this, blaming that; we gotta do our job, and we’ll win this game.’ And that’s exactly what happened in the second half.”
Wynn felt like the scoreboard didn’t determine a thing; the team didn’t feel like it was down. With a couple of adjustments, Slippery Rock would be right back in the game.
Half an hour to go. Wynn and the high-powered Slippery Rock offense was taking the field. What could go wrong?
“I mean, I was a little nervous,” Lutz said. “When they went up 14, I was nervous but nobody else was. They said, ‘we’re gonna get this, we got this.’ It’s really what we’ve been through and what we’ve practiced and guys going through the situations and the scenarios.”
However, Lutz admitted that having Rivers at quarterback made 14 point deficits feel like 14 point leads. He had just made so many big plays throughout the year. It was time for the Rock defense to make a stand.
“After that [touchdown to make the game 35-21], we were in control the rest of the game,” Razzano said.
Well, sometimes the adage “bend, don’t break” comes up big, too. After Rivers’ interception, the Kutztown offense drove the length of the field, including what appeared to be a back-breaking 53-yard scamper from DiGalbo, to set up a 4th and 20 at the Slippery Rock 33-yard line. DiGalbo’s ball fell incomplete. We might just have a ballgame.
“You give up 28 points in the first half, you give up touchdowns on five consecutive series, and I don’t know a lot of defenses that have the toughness and resilience to stay in it,” Razzano said.
Entering the fourth quarter, Slippery Rock trailed by 14 but were driving into Kutztown territory. A few plays later, Rivers tossed his fourth touchdown of the afternoon, a high arcing ball to the corner of the end zone for running back DeSean Dinkins, and it’s a one touchdown game.
Three and out for the Kutztown defense. The tide is turning, as Lutz said, and he’s certain that the Golden Bears could feel it. The defense was getting to DiGalbo, cutting off Pinkerton and making stops in the backfield.
Slippery Rock was driving once again, cruising across midfield with a steady mix of Dinkins’ runs and Rivers’ check downs. The drive stalled at the Kutztown 26 yard line, and Lutz decided to go for it on 4th and 10. The play breaks down, and Rivers takes off for the sticks, battling for those 10 yards but the ball is popped loose. Kutztown recovers.
The defense was called upon again, but Slippery Rock wasn’t just playing Kutztown anymore. The clock was starting to tick down, just over six minutes remained in the game.
“If we allow one of those Kutztown drives to extend, I’m not so sure Roland [Rivers] would have had enough time to put a drive together at the end of that game to win,” Razzano said.
Another first down could have iced the game for Kutztown, Razzano admitted.
Two yard rush, a misfired ball, and a tackle in the backfield. The Slippery Rock defense made their stand. Just under five minutes left in the game, and Wynn trotted onto the field, standing around his own 30-yard line.
Late into the game, Wynn said his biggest focus was just making sure he secured the ball, secured another Slippery Rock possession. It’s a close game, he thought, don’t try to do too much.
But in the back of his mind, he knew he wanted to make a play, give Slippery Rock the spark it needed.
That spark came in the form of a 59-yard punt return to the Kutztown 11 yard line — but it almost didn’t happen.
When Wynn watched the ball soar toward him, Kutztown’s punt team was bearing down on him — hard. He raised his hand ever so slightly but put it down immediately.
“I heard no fair catch whistle, and when I caught the ball, I had two guys converging on me,” Wynn said. “They both hit me, but I was able to keep my balance and spin out of it and turn the punt into a big play.”
The ensuing drive amounted in negative yards, and a 4th and 13 opportunity to tie the game or a field goal to cut the lead. Anyone familiar with Lutz — having watched him go for a 4th and 10 earlier in the quarter — would have expected the chance to let his offense go for it.
“I think if you remember right, I went for it on one fourth down (and didn’t get it) because I’m pretty much a riverboat gambler,” Lutz said. “I go for it a lot on fourth. And I think people thought I was crazy toward the end of the game, we kicked a field goal. A lot of people thought they were gonna go for it.”
Kicker Jake Chapla ran onto the field, struck a 31-yard field through the uprights, and Slippery Rock trailed by four. Lutz trusted his gut, knowing he needed to get something out of the drive, and it paid off with point.
Even if the offense wasn’t necessarily happy about ceding to the special teams unit.
“Everyone on the offensive side of the ball wanted to go for it, and I’m pretty sure everyone on the team did, but coach Lutz — he’s a game manager,” Wynn said. “Ultimately, he makes the calls and he made the right one, I think.”
With a few ticks under four minutes left in the game, trailing by four, the Slippery Rock defense once again took the field, and for the third straight possession, forced a three and out.
“It wasn’t just us playing good defense, that wouldn’t have been enough,” Razzano said. “Playing good defense in that second half wouldn’t have been enough. We played great defense in that second half.”
The scoreboard read 2:06 when Rivers and the offense took the field at their own 35-yard line.
Rivers methodically pushed the ball down the field, connecting on mid-range passes with Litwin and Wynn, as Slippery Rock worked down to the eight-yard line with 30 seconds left in the game.
The only question, at least to Wynn, was who Rivers was going to toss the ball to for the game-winning touchdown. Except, the play call was a run designed for Charles Snorweah.
“When we got the signal, and I saw that it was a run play, initially, I was like, ‘aww, come on, coach!’ Wynn said. “You gotta put it in the hands of one of your receivers right now, but once I looked at the defense, I realized why he called it. I knew right then and there.”
Snorweah took a handoff from Rivers, ran through the trenches and dove into the end zone with 25 seconds to go. Slippery Rock’s first lead of the game.
“The game-winner was a run play on [second] down,” Lutz said. “We knew we had a timeout. We had passed so well, so we were going to run the ball, call a timeout, and on fourth down, throw the ball. We liked the play on [second] down and they gave us the box that we needed and there it was.”
Wynn didn’t even see Snorweah cross the goal line, he was too busy laying a hit on the defensive back ahead of him. Wynn ran full speed at the Kutztown safety, trying to hit him as hard as he could, to create a lane for Snorweah. He found it.
“For us to cap off an undefeated and be down the entire game is something I’ll never forget,” Lutz said.
Kutztown got the ball back, a good return off the kickoff had the ball at their 37 yard line. A few plays later, with two seconds on the clock, Kutztown lined up for a field goal, the game winner. It wasn’t even close.
The scoreboard read: Golden Bears: 35, Visitors: 37. Three zeros lit up the time block.
The 2019 PSAC title felt a little better for Razzano than the ones in 2014 and 2015. Don’t get him wrong, the 2014 title was his first, but 2019 was just special.
The season wasn’t over, Lutz admitted that Slippery Rock could have lost to Kutztown and still made the national playoffs. But he knew his team had to win, losing wasn’t an option.
A grudge match against Notre Dame College loomed later in the year, but for Lutz, the more memorable game was easy to determine.
“That Notre Dame game was a payback game, that was crazy, but to me, Kutztown was more memorable because of what it stood for,” Lutz said.
With his family in the crowd, cheering him on as he made it to the peak of the mountain, the pinnacle of PSAC football, Wynn didn’t pause to think about where the euphoria of winning was on his list of athletic achievements.
“It’s top two, and it’s not number two,” Wynn said. “That feeling — everything that you’ve worked for, all the blood, sweat and tears in the offseason — in the spring and the summer — it led all the way up until that exact moment.”
From the moment West Chester defeated Slippery Rock at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium in 2018, the road back to the top was clear. It wasn’t easy, it never is, but the pathway was laid out before them.
The only ones who could stand in the way were themselves.
All Slippery Rock did was redeem themselves, without losing a single game. All they did was make history along the way.