Rock hitting the road
SLIPPERY ROCK — The trip will be broken up.
Slippery Rock University only hopes its football season won’t be broken apart.
The Rock (9-2) left Thursday night to begin its 520-mile journey to Worcester, Mass., to take on Assumption (8-2) at noon Saturday in a first round NCAA Division II playoff game. SRU plans to make a stop at the University of Connecticut for a Friday practice on the way.
“Our guys don’t care where they’re playing,” SRU coach Shawn Lutz said. “We’re just happy to be part of the dance.”
Assumption is champion of the Northeast 10 conference. The Greyhounds are the No. 3 seed in Super Region One while The Rock received an at-large bid in the region.
The Rock is in the Division II playoffs for the fourth successive year. Only Northwest Missouri State (18 years) and Ferris State (eight) have longer current Division II playoff streaks than SRU. Assumption is in the playoffs for the first time since 2017.
Saturday’s game will be played at Brian Kelly Stadium. The facility is named after the former Notre Dame and current LSU coach, who is an alumnus of Assumption.
“I love the atmosphere our venue creates,” fourth-year Assumption coach Andy McKenzie said. “The stands are close to the playing field. Our seating capacity isn’t that high, but our fans can get pretty loud.
“I’m from Western Pennsylvania (former Allegheny College coach) and am familiar with Slippery Rock’s program. That team is very, very solid. They have a lot of history. They know how to come into hostile environments and win.”
If The Rock is to win Saturday, it will have to do without tight end Max Maciejewski. He suffered a broken collarbone in last week’s 23-21 loss to Kutztown and did not make this trip. Maciejewski caught nine passes for 92 yards last week before getting injured in the third quarter.
Lutz said Karns City graduate Nathan Waltman and Kam Kruzeylak will replace Maciejewski. Waltman is more of a blocking tight end, Kruzeylak more involved in the passing game.
Quarterback Noah Grover and running backs Chris D’Or and Chris Wells have all been cleared after going through concussion protocol and will play Saturday. Wide receiver Kyle Sheets remains questionable as he is recovering from a slight shoulder separation.
Sheets has 51 catches for 828 yards and eight touchdowns this season.
“Kyle hasn’t had any contact all week,” Lutz said. “He really wants to play and I expect he’ll give it a go. But he’ll be a game-time decision.”
Assumption is led by 6-foot-3 senior quarterback Jake Cady, who has thrown for 1,520 yards and 11 touchdowns while rushing for a team-leading 572 yards and eight scores. He’s had a hand in 19 of the Greyhounds’ 29 total touchdowns this season.
Berrell Neal has rushed for 539 yards and five TDs. Quinn Sieger leads the receiving corps with 32 catches for 370 yards and four TDs.
Jake is a tremendous athlete,“ McKenzie said. ”He’s a smart player who takes care of the football. We count on him to make good decisions.“
Assumption ended its regular season last week with a 65-21 win over Post, a first-year football program that went winless. Before that game, the Greyhounds were averaging 16.4 points and 305 yards per game.
Assumption has four starters back on offense, six on defense from last year’s 5-5 team.
“Our strength is in our defense,” McKenzie said.
The Greyhounds are allowing only 15.0 points and 231.5 yards offensively per game. The latter figure ranks fourth in Division II. They allow 70.6 rushing yards per game and have intercepted 16 passes to go with 25 quarterback sacks.
Linebacker Lorenzo Valencia leads Assumption with 55 tackles and 5.0 tackles for loss. Fellow linebacker Jael Feliz 51 stops and nine tackles for loss. The Greyhounds’ defensive front includes 6-7, 275-pound Joe McDougall and 5-11, 300-pounder Zach Khallady.
“They bring the house,” Lutz said of Assumption’s defense. “They love to apply pressure and force you into mistakes. We’ll be counting on Noah to make quick decisions and get the ball out.
“They blitz a lot. I think we can make some big plays out of that.”
SRU’s defense is solid in its own right. The Rock allows 14.5 points per game (eighth in Division II) and has 17 interceptions, good for fifth in the country. Rock opponents are averaging only 263.7 total yards and 75.9 rushing yards per game.
Linebackers Brandon Tuck-Hayden and Brandon Bischof lead SRU with 81 and 61 tackles, respectively. Defensive end D.J. Adediwura has 16.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. Jeff Marx has 12 TFL’s and 8.5 sacks.
“We will have our hands full with them,” McKenzie said. “Slippery Rock will be a big test for our team.”
The teams’ only previous meeting was a 41-39 SRU playoff win in 2015 at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium. The Rock took a 41-19 lead into the fourth quarter and held on.
SRU’s only previous football game in Massachusetts was a 20-0 loss to Boston University at Fenway Park in 1937.