It’s been a long time since Slippery Rock lost a game and had to play the next week. For the past two seasons, the last loss of the season came in the playoffs. Now, they find themselves in unfamiliar territory, as they get ready to make the drive to Erie on Saturday to play Mercyhurst University.
Many of the players on The Rock football team have never experienced a regular season loss. The junior class consists of players that were on the team that went 13-1, with that loss coming from an opponent that wasn’t even from this part of the country. That 58-15 Minnesota State University loss is the only taste of the defeat that some of players have felt.
Now every game is do or die for The Rock football team, as another loss would make it very hard for The Rock to make the playoffs. However, while the loss to Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) stings, Coach Shawn Lutz knows it isn’t the end of the world.
He used an analogy to describe the situation. The University of Alabama lost a couple weeks ago. They don’t lose very often. In the past couple years, neither has Slippery Rock. The Crimson Tide’s season isn’t over and it’s the same way for Slippery Rock. They both have a lot left to play for and one loss isn’t the end of the season.
“After thinking about it, it starts with me and number one I’ve got to do a better job, we haven’t been in this position [in a while],” Lutz said. “You know Alabama lost a few weeks ago and they don’t think their world is coming to an end, and they still have their goals.”
The path to the playoffs still exists for The Rock. The most desired path is for No. 5 California University of Pennsylvania (Cal-U) to win this week against IUP. If both The Rock and The Vulcans were to win out, it would set up a winner take all matchup in the final week of the season.
Before The Green and White can even think of that though, they need to take care of business, starting this week in Erie. They have two straight games that are played in Erie, with the first being played against Mercyhurst University and then they take on Gannon University next week.
“I still think that we’re a very good football team, and I hope that going through adversity will make us stronger, because sometimes you need failure before you can have success,” Lutz said. “Our guys are mad, upset and hate to lose and we’re going to take care ourselves and get better that way.”
That focus now shifts to controlling what you can control. The biggest thing they can control is how they play and what they want to improve upon. A large area that needs improvement is the run game. So far, it’s struggled throughout the entire season.
The spark seemed to be lit against Edinboro University when they had Cinque Sweeting in the backfield for a number of plays. He had just seven rushing attempts in the game and ran for 89-yards and two touchdowns.
Sweeting complemented Tim Smith and Chris D’Or in the Edinboro game. Smith ran for 95-yards on 17 attempts in that game, and D’Or ran for 53-yards on seven attempts. In total, The Rock had 267-yards rushing in the game. The problem seemed to be fixing itself, and then IUP was able to completely shut down to the tune of just 70-yards on 25 attempts.
While The Rock tried running the ball against The Crimson Hawks, it just didn’t work. The failure to run the ball limited what they could do on offense as it took them a while to adjust to the cover two that IUP was playing.
This week Lutz is hopeful to have Evyn Holtz back. Holtz has been going through practice this week and having him back would benefit The Rock. Going into camp, he was number one on the depth chart at running back. Having him back would create a steady backfield with four very capable runners competing for carries and touches.
“It’s hard to give them all carries but going into camp Evyn was our number one back, and Tim Smith has done a great job, and so has Chris D’Or and Cinque Sweeting,” Lutz said. “It just gives us another weapon, and whoever has the hot hand is who we’re going to have to go with.”
Having Holtz back could be huge for an offense that just got Max Meciejewski back just a few weeks prior. It would give The Rock the opportunity to put an almost entirely healthy team out on the field and it comes at a good time. Every game becomes a must win after only one loss.
“I told the team that what we know is that we’re guaranteed four games left and from here on out, the way we’re looking at it is that every game up to that point is a playoff game,” Lutz said. “We have a very low margin for error, and with another loss we know what’s at stake, but with that being said we still think we’re a pretty good football team and we’re not going to panic.”
This past week saw The Rock defense allow the most points they did all season. IUP had Irvin Charles and Duane Brown out wide, and they were the first team that was able to effectively move the ball through the air on The Rock. Even with IUP’s explosive game through the air, The Rock still only gives up an average of 126 passing yards per game and still hasn’t allowed over 1,000 passing yards this season.
After allowing 48 points in one game, The Rock defense is going to come out aggressive. That’s something that Lutz wants to see. They were put in a lot of tough positions against The Crimson Hawks, however Lutz knows it’s going to take both sides to win the turnover battle. Winning that will be one of the keys to winning the game on Saturday.
Walking into a game like this, the Alabama comparison can be used again. After the loss, The Crimson Tide walked into their game against the Mississippi State University and won decisively. That is exactly what Lutz is looking for this week. A loss ends any chance at the PSAC West title no matter the result of the IUP-Cal-U game. While that game is going to be big in deciding what path The Rock will have to take, it is not by any means the main order of business.
The Rock dropped 11 spots in the Div. II poll this week and they now sit at number 17 in the nation. A loss would likely push them out of it for the first time in a while. Slippery Rock has made a home in the top 10, and it’s odd for them to be out of it. Coming off of the loss, it just fuels motivation even further.
Being on the road can sometimes be a good thing. In fact, SRU’s last loss on the road came in 2017 against Edinboro, and while Slippery Rock has one of the best home advantages in Div. II, being on the road can be good for the team to have a new test and get more experience.
“We love playing at home, but sometimes going into a hostile atmosphere helps us focus on what we want to do, and we’ve been through the pressure,” Lutz said. “Like I said when you have adversity, you’re going to go one way or the other, and hopefully it’s going to make us stronger and that’s what we expect.”
Another key is going to be getting the big playmakers the ball. There are a lot of them for The Rock but getting Henry Litwin and Jermaine Wynn Jr. is going to be a major key to success on Saturday. The duo has proven themselves to be one of the most dangerous in the entire country, and in the Seton Hill University game they made that clear. They combined for five touchdowns in the game, and now getting them involved will be of high importance.
“We’ve got to do a better job of getting Henry the ball, you know they’ve been doubling him a lot so we’re going to do some things to mix that up so we can do that,” Lutz said. “Early in the game we’ve got to get our playmakers the ball, and we can’t make it that hard. Get them the ball and let them make plays in space.”
The goal still remains the same for The Rock football team. While the loss hurts a little, it’s back to business and now the plan is to take it game by game, according to Lutz. Every game is as big as the next, no matter the opponent.
“We’re a resilient team, and we’ve got to go out and prove that at 12 p.m. on Saturday against Mercyhurst,” Lutz said.