The more things change, the more they tend to stay the same. It’s been two years since the Kutztown University of Pennsylvania Golden Bears hosted Slippery Rock for the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) title game, a game that The Rock won 37-35. Now, this weekend they meet again, and much like two years prior, they’ll be playing for the right to call themselves PSAC champions.
“I still think we’re getting better, and I’m kind of excited to be on the road because there isn’t a lot of distractions and you don’t have to worry about a lot of things,” Coach Shawn Lutz said.
The road is the place The Rock has seemed to feel the most comfortable this season. Now in week 11 of the season, they make the nearly five hour trip east to play Kutztown. When they were last on the road, they made two straight trips to Erie. The second of which went better than they could have hoped for with a 63-21 win against Gannon University.
It set up a PSAC West championship game, which is very rare that it comes down to the final game for a division to be decided, against No. 3 California University of Pennsylvania (Cal-U). Three quick strikes had that game at 21-0 before The Vulcans could even blink.
Heading into the matchup with the No. 1 team in the region is another test. When they last met, The Rock was favored, but things have changed a lot since then.
This time around The Rock doesn’t have a man named Roland Rivers III behind center. But they have all three of their leading receivers back. In the 2019 championship game, the trio of Henry Litwin, Jermaine Wynn Jr. and Cinque Sweeting combined for 22 receptions, 233 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
The only difference is now they’re catching passes from Noah Grover, who took over the starting spot only two weeks ago against Gannon. In that game, he set a school record with eight touchdown passes. He followed it up with a four touchdown performance against Cal-U, who ranked among the best in the country defensively. He already faces another test this week, and the stakes are much higher.
“I think every game [Noah] starts he feels a little more confident and comfortable, so I don’t think there will ever be a big stage for Noah because he understands and he’s calm, cool and collected,” Lutz said. “You’re going to see him continue to improve and get better as he gets more experience under his belt.”
Grover has already shown what he can do in just two starts. He’s had 12 touchdown passes over those two games and has also thrown for 905-yards. He’s accomplished getting many people involved, including players like Max Maciejewski and John Eakin, each of whom caught a touchdown pass against Gannon. With the weapons Grover has, the goal is to get him going early on.
Even with an offense that’s on fire, an away game so far from home makes it easy to give No. 16 Kutztown an advantage, however The Rock football team is confident in what they’ve been doing. The challenges that Lutz set last week were met and met beyond expectations. The secondary shut down of one of the best passing attacks in the nation and lead to The Rock’s advancement for the third straight year.
This week the challenge is clear to Lutz: contain Kutztown and their run heavy offense.
“It’s going to come down to the offensive and defensive line, because in a game like this you’re going to win it in the trenches,” Lutz said.
The Golden Bears have three players with over 400-yards on the ground, with Darryl Davis-McNeil’s 512-yards leading the way. Against Cal-U The Rock was able to force their offense off the field three straight possessions to begin the game. They scored on their first three drives as well. In this game, The Rock will try to get off to a dream start like that again.
It’s unlikely that Evyn Holtz, who returned a few weeks ago, will be able to go against Kutztown. Holtz was injured on his first touchdown of the season. His presence has given The Rock running game a major boost, but luckily for Slippery Rock, they have Tim Smith, Chris D’or and Cinque Sweeting.
“The nice thing about Tim Smith has been our starter all year, Chris D’Or is our big play guy, and Cinque has a role as well and Evyn gives a combination of everything so [not having him] is going to hurt,” Lutz said. “But I think with those three we have a nice one, two, three punch and we’ll be okay at that position.”
Both teams have had a somewhat similar path up to this point. They both suffered their lone loss to Indiana University of Pennsylvania and both had big wins over a ranked team that would be in the championship. Kutztown beat No. 10 Shepherd University on the road, and that serves as their best win this year. The Rock is coming off of their best win.
Lutz thinks that while the two teams may be a little similar, their approaches couldn’t be any different. The Rock is a pass happy, quick strike team, which will play a big part in the game Saturday. On the other hand, The Golden Bears are run first team, that likes to grind the clock. While they may be very different, both are playing towards the same goal on Saturday: bring home the PSAC title.
“I have a lot of respect for them, their head coach has done a tremendous job, because they lost a lot of guys offensively and they have a lot of player back on defense,” Lutz said. “So their strength is definitely their defense… they’re the number one team in the region for a reason and it’s got to go through Kutztown.”
The last time the two met, the stakes were just as high. Now it’s going to almost be like déjà vu as they square off in the same spot two years removed since the last PSAC championship was held. In the end, The Rock is hoping that they’ll be bringing back another trophy on the bus ride home. As Lutz said, everything runs through Kutztown right now.