The last time Rock football started a season so well, the world was completely unrecognizable.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was dealing with the rapid escalation of World War II, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz were premiering in theaters and a gallon of gas cost a dime.

Rock head coach Shawn Lutz was not even a twinkle in his parents’ eyes — even his predecessor Dr. George Mihalik had not been born yet.

N. Kerr Thompson was in his 19th season at the helm of Rock football, coming off a 6-2-1 season.

In 1939, Mihalik led The Rock to an 8-0 season and a Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference title. SRU went 4-0 in the conference, shutting out Shippensburg, Indiana (Pa.), Edinboro and California (Pa.).

The Rock scored 25.5 points per game, which would rank ninth in the PSAC this season, but the defense held opponents to only 2.5 points per game.

The 1939 team’s 7-0 start, with an eventual eighth win, was unmatched until SRU defeated Edinboro Saturday, 41-30. Even though a few Rock teams in the past have marched to 12-2 or 11-2 records, a combination of losses in the sixth game of the year and/or losses to Division I teams to start the season left SRU without a 7-0 start for 80 years.

This season’s team has a legitimate shot at continuing its historic run, and here are a few reasons why:

Roland Rivers III leads Division II

It always starts with the quarterback, and Slippery Rock is no different.

Senior quarterback Roland Rivers III started his career last season with The Rock as the third-string quarterback behind Andrew Koester and Taylor King after transferring from Valdosta State.

Injuries to Koester and King led to Rivers being handed his first start in Week 3 against Millersville. 126 yards in the air, 40 yards on the ground and a pair of touchdowns in the air and on the ground led to a 57-10 victory.

He never looked back.

He finished the season with 2,721 passing yards, 597 rushing yards and 35 total touchdowns. The Rock swept the PSAC-West, and despite a loss to West Chester in the PSAC title game, advanced to the NCAA playoffs, making it to the quarterfinals.

This season, Rivers has emerged as a leading candidate for the Harlon Hill Award. Through seven games, the senior from Ellenwood, Georgia leads Division II in passing efficiency (200.30), passing touchdowns (25) and points responsible for (186). He ranks third in completion percentage (74.8) and fourth in passing yards (2,191).

Rivers leads the third-highest scoring offense in Division II, lighting up the scoreboard with over 50 points per game.

While Rivers would obviously like to win the national championship, and a PSAC title, of course, he isn’t letting it become an obsession.

In an interview with The Rocket in Sept., Rivers dismissed the notion of a “championship or bust” cloud hanging over the team and said this season would be accountability and discipline or bust heading forward.

“I know I mentioned that earlier in the year about being championship or bust, but with the talent we have on this team, we know that anything less than a championship, we can’t blame on talent. We can’t say, ‘if we had one more player, if we had this guy.’ That’s not the case this season,” Rivers said.

Super trio leads PSAC 

A couple of the men Rivers would give a lot of his credit to, Slippery Rock boasts a few of the best receivers in program history.

Juniors Henry Litwin and Jermaine Wynn, Jr., along with Seton Hill transfer Cinque Sweeting, blossomed as the best wide receiver trio in the PSAC.

The duo of Litwin and Wynn rank in the top four in the PSAC in receptions, receiving yards, touchdown receptions and yards per game.

Wynn leads SRU in receiving yards with 674 while ranking second in receptions (42) and touchdowns (8). Litwin leads SRU with 46 catches and nine touchdowns while his 640 receiving yards are second behind Wynn.

In an interview with The Rocket in Sept., Wynn touched on the fact that he and Litwin tend to trade off touchdowns during games. Their near-identical stats through seven games this season, and their entire careers at SRU, validate that.

“When [Litwin] makes a play, it drives me to want to make a play,” Wynn said. “We feed off each other’s energy and we’re always trying to one-up each other. That’s what pushes me to be great and that’s what pushes him to keep trying to be great.”

The trio of Litwin, Wynn and Sweeting has become the best  in all of Division II football, as well, as all three average at least 74 receiving yards per game.

Offensive balance 

In the first three games of the season, Rivers, Litwin, Wynn and co. led a high-powered offense with mind-numbing passing numbers. But the ground game never seemed to be able to get going. Former Rock running back Wes Hills seemed to be missed, and the offensive line just wasn’t making those holes for transfer running back Charles Snorweah.

With 1,193 passing yards and 436 rushing yards through three weeks, it was clear where the strength of the offense was. Rivers jumped out to a fast start for the Harlon Hill while still leading SRU in rushing.

Over the next three games, including a pivotal PSAC-West matchup against archrival Indiana (Pa.), SRU’s offense miraculously leveled out.

With 640 rushing yards to 683 passing yards, SRU’s high-powered offense kept rolling against Seton Hill, Mercyhurst and IUP. And Charles Snorweah finally broke out for a 100-yard day on the ground.

Lutz credited his veteran offensive line and a resurgence from a hardnosed Snorweah to the run game finally breaking out.

Against Edinboro Saturday, Rivers was once again prolific through the air, throwing for 391 yards, but Snorweah still rushed for 73 yards at 6.1 yards per carry. Five rushing touchdowns from Snorweah, Rivers, Sweeting and junior running back DeSean Dinkins were the difference in the game.

While SRU’s passing offense still commands immense respect from opposing defense, possibly a reason why the run game has exploded in recent weeks, the running offense has risen to third in the conference.

SRU has shown the ability to win the game with Rivers’ hands and Snorweah, Dinkins and Rivers’ feet.

Getting into the opponent’s backfield

When a program boasts the leading sack artist in college football history, across all divisions, the ability to get to the opposing quarterback is expected.

Junior defensive end Chad Kuhn might not reach Marcus Martin level sack totals this season, but he’s still leading the PSAC in sacks with 7.5.

After allowing 37 points to Wayne State in Week 1, the leaders on the defense expressed how their performance wasn’t nearly good enough and the work that went into correcting the lapses. Kuhn outlined how he approaches practice every day to improve for games each week.

“[We need to] get 1% better every day,” Kuhn said. “[We] just find something to go out there to practice and focus on every day.”

The defense rebounded with four straight performances of less than 20 points allowed before IUP dropped 42 on them and Edinboro followed up with 30. However, the 22.3 points allowed per game still ranks sixth in the conference.

According to Lutz, the best front seven in the conference allows the defense to impose its will on opponents. Defensive ends Kuhn and Garrett de Bien, along with star linebacker Brad Zaffram, form a trio that consistently disrupts play in the backfield.

Kuhn leads the conference in sacks while ranking third in tackles for loss (10.5) and Zaffram leads the conference in tackles for loss with 13.

Stout run defense 

The game against Wayne State was a high-scoring, high-octane showing for both teams’ offenses. According to Zaffram, the game effectively served as a slap in the face of the defense.

For a defense that allowed only 21.21 points per game and was one of the best in the country against opposing quarterbacks, allowing 37 points and 500 yards offense woke up a group that was full of itself, Zaffram said.

After allowing 248 yards on the ground to Wayne State, the Rock defense limited opponents to 295 yards over the next six games.

SRU is allowing only 77.6 yards per game on the ground, good for second in the conference. With only 543 yards allowed on 207 carries, opponents are only picking up 2.6 yards per carry.

Veteran experience

After last season’s loss to Notre Dame (Oh.) in the NCAA quarterfinals, Lutz said this season’s team, full of players from last year, still uses that game as motivation.

After returning nearly the entire team, besides Hills, linemen Steve Gaviglia and Colten Raabe and defensive back Kyle Hall, Slippery Rock boasts one of the most experienced teams in the country.

Despite the loss of junior linebacker Trysten McDonald to an ACL injury, the veteran defense features eight players with at least 17 starts. The offense features three offensive linemen with at least 20 starts and Rivers has started in 19 straight games.

This group hasn’t lost a PSAC-West game in over two years now, dating back to Oct. 21, 2017, a 49-39 loss to Edinboro.

Despite a sparkling division record over the past two seasons, and losses to only Shippensburg, West Chester and Notre Dame during that time, Rivers approached the offseason like Slippery Rock hadn’t won a single game last season.

“We knew that we had to be better as an offense and guys took that approach this summer with everything we did in the weight room … the team as a whole knew that we left plays out there on that field and that we were a few plays away from competing for the national championship,” Rivers said.

With a couple more wins, Slippery Rock will be right back in the PSAC championship game again. If the season were to end today, SRU would play Kutztown.

With wins over Clarion, California (Pa.) and Gannon, Slippery Rock would improve to 10-0, which would be the best record in program history.

While the excitement and hype around the team has never been higher, Lutz knows one bad game could realistically end their season.

A loss to California and Kutztown, he said, would leave Slippery Rock at 9-2, with a possibility of missing out on the national playoffs.

Like Rivers always says: just one play at a time, one game at a time.

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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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