Don’t get it wrong. When IUP and Slippery Rock play, it’s always a big game.
It’s a rivalry that has been sometimes competitive, sometimes relevant and sometimes ugly. The two teams don’t have many good things to say about each other, and their fans have even less to say.
But when the Crimson Hawks hit the road Saturday to visit The Rock in what will likely be the single game that has the most bearing in PSAC West play, nothing more will be immediately at stake — other than bragging rights.
“There are two things here,” said IUP coach Paul Tortorella. “One, you can’t make it an all-or-nothing game because it’s not a last-game-of-the-year situation. And two, if you’re not fortunate enough to win the game, you still have everything in front of you. You’re not done. So it’s not a do-or-die game. It’s a big game. It’s an important game. But, it’s not like you either win or you’re done.”
On paper, the similarities between these teams are intriguing. Both are 5-0 and have a number of lopsided victories to their credit. Both have offenses ranked among the highest-scoring in the country, and both have defenses that are capable of taking games over.
Both have quarterbacks with flashy statistics, a few receivers with huge-play ability and veteran offensive lines. They both have defenses that can stop the run, rush the passer and force turnovers.
And both have their sights set on winning the PSAC championship before embarking on a long playoff run.
So when the teams collide during Slippery Rock’s homecoming — with an expected crowd nearing the 10,000 capacity at Thompson-Mihalik Stadium — there’s every reason to believe it will be a colossal matchup.
“We’ve had so many great games with IUP, they’ve all been big games,” Slippery Rock coach Shawn Lutz said in August at PSAC Media Day. “We’re not going to hold back and say it’s just another game. We know it’s a big game and we use it that way. We know the history, tradition and success, and we know if you want to win a championship, you’ve got to go through IUP, no question about it.”
The Rock enters the game with an offense that averages a shocking 53 points per game, although it should be noted its five opponents have a combined record of 7-17. Quarterback Roland Rivers has been the catalyst for the offense, putting up statistics that at first glance beg to be fact-checked.
But they’re true. In five starts, Rivers has completed a startling 75 percent of his passes (106 of 141) for 1,620 yards and 23 touchdowns with only two interceptions. He leads NCAA Division II quarterbacks in passing efficiency, passing touchdowns and yards per completion. Rivers, a transfer from Valdosta State (Ga.), is also an excellent runner, with a team-high 286 yards in five games.
Slippery Rock also boasts three top-flight wide receivers and a stable of running backs who can give defenses fits, including Charles Snorweah, a transfer from Division I Rutgers.
“They score a lot,” Tortorella said. “Their quarterback throws lot of touchdown passes, makes a lot of big plays and can hurt you running the ball. They’ve got two or three running backs who do a good job. And like everybody else, if you start playing the pass against them, their run game ends up being pretty good.”
While last week’s IUP opponent, California, preferred to use downfield passes to move the ball, the Crimson Hawks’ defense will face a different test in Slippery Rock, which uses long and short passes. That puts an awful lot of stress on defensive backs who have a lot of ground to cover.
And just when you start to think you’ve got the passing game under wraps, Rivers and company will run the ball.
“You can’t just say, ‘Well, we’re not going to play the pass’ because you’ll get smoked,” Tortorella said. “I mean, they have three legitimate wideouts. But the quarterback, he’s the guy that’s got the ball, and he’s going to hurt you throwing and then he’ll hurt you running. They don’t have to throw the ball deep to get a big play. They have guys that you throw a 3-yard pass to, and they might go for 70 (yards). So, you have to stop the deep pass. You have to stop the yardage after the catch. You have to stop the run game. And you can’t let the quarterback run around.”
As for the Slippery Rock defense, IUP will face a unit that Tortorella said attacks the offense much like its own offense attacks the defense.
“They play hard,” he said. “They’re very aggressive. They’re very physical. You’ve got to worry about protecting the quarterback in the passing game. They do everything possible to not let you run on them. They’re not like a bend-or-break defense. They challenge the offense, like you’re either going to be three-and-out with a sack or two runs for minus yardage and an incomplete pass. If you’re good, you might make some big plays.”
If it sounds like the Crimson Hawks will have their hands full on Saturday, well, they probably will. Tortorella said Slippery Rock has no obvious weakness, and emotions will likely be high.
Last year, Slippery Rock ruined IUP’s homecoming with a 30-27 win, which came a year after the Crimson Hawks embarrassed The Rock on its own homecoming, 34-17.
While Tortorella, his staff and the veteran IUP players know what it’s like to play at Slippery Rock, a handful of freshmen who will be on the field Saturday do not. And that’s OK, Tortorella said, because what they don’t know could help them play better, and that’s what the Crimson Hawks will need in order to win.
“Our guys understand the scenario and the environment,” he said. “But we have some younger guys that are oblivious to everything. They don’t know the difference between Cal and Slippery Rock compared to the teams they played in high school. You know, they’re just oblivious to it, so that’s OK, too. I think their eyes will get opened a little bit here on this trip when they see the crowd and the intensity. It’s going to be a lot more intense than a normal game.”