There is a certain nostalgia that comes from the game of college football. It’s something that is just associated with the season of fall, like apple cider or pumpkin spice. Due to the pandemic, however, the PSAC decided not to field its football team’s last season. On Thursday, the Rock will play its first game since its national semifinal loss at the hands of Minnesota State.
“I think [preparing for our first game] has really put things in perspective,” head coach Shawn Lutz said. “When something gets taken away, how much you value what you do for a living. I think it really shows the dedication of our seniors because we have 15 or 16 coming back who already graduated, and it makes you feel good as the head coach that they really value the program.”
Many of those returning seniors have a chance to solidify themselves as one of the best classes to ever pass through the SRU football program. Their presence is going to be an important one, as the team features a whopping 46 freshmen. The leadership of those returning seniors will play a large part in not only this season but in the years moving forward.
“During these times when you didn’t have football for a year, it’s great that we have a veteran football team and the underclassmen are like sponges when it comes to listening to those guys,” Lutz said. “And the biggest thing that they bring to the team is the way they approach everything they do. I mean, when you watch them in the meeting room or the practice field or wherever they just bring that relentless approach to everything.”
Lutz and Slippery Rock open the season ranked fifth in the nation in the AFCA coaches preseason poll. This is the second year straight that the Green and White open the season in the Top 10. In 2019, the Rock started out at 10th in the nation, and they held that spot for most of the season.
There have been many subtractions from the 2019 team that made the playoff run. The biggest being Harlon Hill-winner Roland Rivers III, who was under center for Slippery Rock. His spot may be one of the hardest to fill in all of Div. II.
One of Slippery Rock’s more impressive victories in 2019 came against its biggest rival, Indiana (Pa.). In a matchup of Top 25 teams, the Rock pulled out a 45-42 win. Just as in 2019, IUP will come to Slippery Rock for homecoming weekend. The Crimson Hawks are ranked 17th nationally in the preseason poll.
Slippery Rock and IUP are not the only two teams ranked in the preseason Top 25 from the PSAC. Shepherd and Kutztown also came in at the 15th and 20th, respectfully. The PSAC has the most teams ranked in the Top 25 in Div. II, with the Green and White being the highest-ranked team in the conference.
As of Aug. 31, the Rock football team had a vaccination rate above 85%. Lutz mentioned that the team will try to up the vaccination rate as the season moves along but, as it stands, any unvaccinated player is getting tested weekly and must follow every protocol to ensure both their well-being and the well-being of others. The hope is that the team doesn’t have to miss a game this season, but Lutz said the team will control what they can control and hope for the best.
Key returners on this year’s team include star receivers Jermaine Wynn and Henry Litwin. In 2019, the duo combined for 198 receptions, 2,848 receiving yards, and 36 receiving touchdowns. The tandem proved to be one of the most lethal in the entire country, with each wideout averaging 14 yards per reception. Having not just one—but two—potential All-American receivers will make the task of taking over for Rivers much easier. That job will be redshirt senior Andrew Koester’s.
“You’re never going to replace Roland Rivers and we don’t need the next guy to replace [him] because it’s just not going to happen,” Lutz said. “But we named Andrew Koester our starting quarterback and he’s started for us before, and he has a big arm. The goal is to get the ball out quick to our guys so they can make plays, and we’re going to go quick like we always have. If you double one guy, the other will be open, so you really have to pick your poison.”
The defense will also see the return of two key pieces, redshirt senior Tim Vernick, who has registered 183 total tackles in three years of action at linebacker, and redshirt senior Chad Kuhn, who has amassed 20 sacks in three years. Kuhn, a defensive end, was named a preseason All-American for 2021. In 2019, he was named a second-team All-American. Vernick and Kuhn will anchor Slippery Rock’s defense this season as two new classes of players are introduced to college football.
“You always want to have a really sound guy at every level on defense and we have that with Chad, who can make the big play, and Tim, who is more of the workman kind of guy who doesn’t show up on the stat sheet a lot, but he runs the defense,” Lutz said.
When talking about the defense, Lutz also mentioned players such as Garrett de Bien and Trystan McDonald. SRU’s defense will feature a lot of players who have been through the success of the past few years, however, Coach Lutz stressed that he feels that this team hasn’t proved anything yet and while these players are returning, this is a new year. Two years removed from the long playoff run, this team begins their own journey starting Thursday in Detroit, when they take on Wayne State.
The last time the Rock squared off against Wayne State, Roland Rivers and The Rock put up EA Sports NCAA Football 14 video game-type numbers. In the contest, the Rock racked up 522 total yards, with Rivers throwing for 405 of them. The team rushing for 67 and was responsible for seven touchdowns. In that game, Wynn had 152 yards receiving on eight receptions and two touchdowns, Litwin had 122 yards on seven grabs and two scores, and Cinque Sweeting had 86 yards on five receptions with a pair of touchdowns, as well.
It’s important to note that Sweeting will also return this season. The Rock won the game 62-37 and thus began their march to the national semifinal. Wayne State also had an impressive year in 2019, going 8-3 with wins over No. 25 Saginaw Valley State and No. 19 Grand Valley State.
Wayne State will look to make a statement to catch the Rock off-balance. The Warriors put up an impressive 509 yards in total against Slippery Rock in 2019. Through the air, they passed for 261 yards and 248 were on the ground. They had a well-balanced attack but considering it has been nearly two years since either team took the field, it is almost impossible to predict what kind of game will be played. Coach Lutz expects it will be sloppy just as any other season opener can be. Neither team will know their identity yet, but when the clock starts rolling, they’ll find out very quickly.
“We’re really trying to say, ‘Hey, this 2021 team hasn’t done anything,’” Lutz said. “Our approach is we’re going to work hard every day and we aren’t going to go into this first game overconfident because we have a lot to prove.”
The Rock will be using the motto “Beast Mode Mentality” this year, and everything Lutz said talked about how that all starts with how the team approaches things. He wants his team to have this mentality in every situation this year, and as he stressed, this team has a lot to prove as the fifth-ranked team in the nation. The expectations are high in a tough conference, but that pressure is something that everyone who is around the game missed last year. Lutz even said at one point that he has never been as excited for a year as he is this year with the team finally getting back to action.
Football is finally back. The comfort that comes from those four simple words is like no other. After 628 days, The Rock will be back on the field and ready to play.