SLIPPERY ROCK — Slippery Rock University was close to perfect Saturday evening.
The Rock (2-0, 5-0) outgained Clarion 588-81 and limited the Eagles to just seven first downs while cruising to a 75-0 victory Saturday at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium in Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference action.
“There’s always room for improvement,” quarterback Andrew Koester said. “It’s never as good as you think it is and never as bad as you think it is once you watch the film. I’m sure there’ll be some things we need to clean up. We’re nowhere close to where we want to be. I’d say we’re a good team right now, but we want to be great. Getting better every week is the key.”
The shutout was the first for SRU since a 49-0 win over Millersville on September 21, 2019, and the 75 single-game points were the seventh most in program history. The margin of victory was one-point short of a modern era (1945 to present) record, a 76-0 win over Lock Haven in 1973.
“(Getting the shutout) meant everything to us,” senior defensive end Garrett de Bien said. “Our (reserves) have struggled in past games and jeopardized the shutout. Today, they stepped up and made the plays.”
While the offense shone Saturday, the SRU defense may have been even better, forcing three turnovers, limiting Clarion (0-2, 0-5) to just 1.4 yards per play on 56 offensive snaps and allowed the Eagles to convert just one of 14 third downs.
On the season, Slippery Rock’s starting defense has allowed just 31 points and its brilliance Saturday led to 50 straight plays being contested in Clarion territory.
“I’m super proud about that,” de Bien said. “You definitely don’t see (sub-100 yards of total offense) every game. We just have a great overall defense and I’m happy to see that. It seems like everything is clicking for us.
“We came into the season with veteran guys in Chad Kuhn, Jeff Marx and Munchie (Johnson) being the new guy. I think we’re one of the best d-lines in the nation if not THE best and I stand by that. I’m proud of our guys.”
Even with the lopsided win, veteran coach Shawn Lutz said he wanted more from his nationally ranked club.
With his club willing and able to fling the ball all over the field, The Rock managed just 146 yards on the ground — most of which came in the second half — but also committed 12 penalties for 126 yards.
“There were two negatives tonight,” Lutz said. “We have to run the football a little better and cut down the penalties. Our guys like to have some fun, but there’s no excuse.
“We have to learn when you make a good play you can’t over-celebrate. You have to keep your composure, because that can kill you in big games. Any time you have 12 penalties, that starts with the head coach.”
Slippery Rock jumped out to a 20-0 lead after 15 minutes by sandwiching 6- and 1-yard touchdown runs from Tim Smith around a 77-yard punt return from Jermaine Wynn.
SRU exploded for five touchdowns in the second quarter on Koester touchdown passes to Wynn (36 yards), Cinque Sweeting (5 yards), Max Maciejewski (36 yards), Kyle Sheets (19 yards) and Henry Litwin (14 yards) to take a 55-0 lead into the half.
“We’re doing what we’re coached to do,” Koester said. “I’m getting the ball to our playmakers. Those guys are just incredible and make my job easy.”
In the second half, Slippery Rock’s reserves took center stage with Chris D’Or hauling in a pair of scoring strikes from Noah Grover for a 68-0 lead entering the fourth quarter, while defensive back Devin Sims scored from three yards out after a lost Clarion fumble in Rock territory early in the final period.
“When the starters come out and the twos go in, we needed to be supportive on the sideline and bring the same energy,” Koester said. “The sideline was jumping the whole game. Guys were excited when players made plays. Some guys got their first touchdowns today, so it was nice to see that. Some guys had their first picks on D and it was nice to see that as well.”
Koester (20-of-22) and Grover (11-of-13) combined for just four incomplete passes while throwing for 442 yards and seven scores. Koester had 328 yards and five touchdowns, while Grover tallied 114 passing yards and a pair of scores in relief.
“We only had four incompletions for the entire game,” Lutz said. “How about that? I give credit to coach (Adam) Neugebauer. He does a great job with those guys and give credit to Koester. Three years ago, he’s our starting quarterback and has a season-ending injury. Then Roland (Rivers) takes over and he has to sit the bench and watch Roland win the Harlan Hill. That speaks volumes to what he’s had to overcome and he’s really capitalized on this second opportunity. He’s probably the hottest quarterback in the PSAC right now. He’s just doing a nice job.”
Maciejewski led the SRU receiving corps with five receptions for 100 yards in his first game back from injury after nearly two years, while Sweeting (6-50), D’Or (4-79), Wynn (4-66), Kyle Sheets (4-60) and Litwin (3-57) led the 10 Rock players with at least one catch against Clarion.
“It felt good to be back out there,” Maciejewski said. “I treated it like practice. I don’t think their defense was used to seeing our offense with so many tight end formations, so that’s how I got so wide open.
“The coaches did a great job of getting us prepared and giving us the right plays. We just executed.”
Meanwhile, converted defensive end Reis Watkins (9-58) and Sims (3-38) — whose natural position is in the defensive secondary — led the Slippery Rock ballcarriers, while D’Or added seven carries for 45 yards to his four catches.
“To be honest with you, I think we need to run the football better,” Lutz said. “Towards the end, it got going. What I don’t understand is defenses are playing man coverages against our receivers and loading up the box. I’m thinking it should be the other way. Why not play coverage against those guys?”
With the win, Slippery Rock improved to 5-0 for the second season in a row and won its 18th straight PSAC-West game. The victory also was the 19th connsecutive victory under the lights at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium for SRU, who is 27-1 in home night games since 2010.
“You know that old saying ‘play down to the competition’?” Lutz asked. “Our guys don’t do that. You’d think they just won a national championship. They just love to play football. The way they practice just carries over to the way they play the game. There’s no let down. I think we have an experienced team. We’re not going to be overconfident, but we’re going to enjoy this night.
“The message this week had nothing to do with Clarion. It was we have to get better. If we’re going to have a great year and if we’re going to beat some of these great teams coming up, we have to get better. The teams that improve each and every week are the teams that will be dangerous. That’s really the key for us. Tonight was so good, because I thought we got better. We got guys playing time and that experience is invaluable.”
NOTES: Slippery Rock did not need to punt … The points and margin of victory set new high-water marks for both categories in the 83-game series between the two schools ... With SRU handing Clarion three first downs via penalty, the Eagles only earned four first downs on their own ... de Bien led The Rock with six tackles, two tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, while Eddie Faulkner and Chad Kuhn each had five stops ... Savion Harrison and Josh Stokes each forced and recovered a fumble, while DaShaun Wright had an interception.