SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. – The 10th ranked Slippery Rock University football team advanced to the second round of the NCAA Division II Playoffs with a 40-21 victory over Virginia Union University in the opening round Saturday at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium.
The game marked the first home playoff game for The Rock since 1999 and the first playoff victory since 1998, when the team reached the national semifinals.
Slippery Rock, the No. 2 seed in Super Region One, improves to 11-1 on the season and will host No. 3 seed Assumption in the second round next Saturday, Nov. 28, at noon with a trip to the NCAA quarterfinals on the line. Assumption handled No. 6 seed Bowie State in the opening round Saturday with a 51-29 home win.
The Rock are now 6-0 at home this season and have won 16 straight home games, tied with Minnesota Duluth for the longest active home winning streak among all Division II programs.
Virginia Union, which earned the No. 7 seed in the region and was playing in its first playoff game since 1991, finishes the year at 8-3 overall.
The Rock needed an all-around solid performance Saturday to fight off a pesky Virginia Union team that threatened throughout the game. The deciding factor ended up being the turnover battle, where Slippery Rock won 6-0 after recording three interceptions and three fumble recoveries.
The Panthers posted a 470-422 edge in total offense in the game after throwing for 410 yards and running for 60 yards on 37 carries. With little success on the ground, they were forced to the air and attempted 53 passes in the game.
Slippery Rock used a balanced attack with 249 passing yards and 173 rushing yards. The Rock defense recorded four sacks and 11 tackles for loss to go along with the six turnovers.
“I think our defense really played an exceptional game today,” said head coach George Mihalik. “Our offense just wasn’t quite as sharp as we have been at times, in part because of the wind and in part because of how physical and talented they were on defense, but our defense set the tone and got us rolling.”
Marcus Martin led the defensive effort with 12 total tackles, two sacks, four tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, his fourth of the season. He also had another sack erased by a penalty. Teven Williams finished with 10 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and an interception returned for a touchdown. Cody Conway recovered two fumbles, Derek Morgan and Johnny Davis each had one interception and Joe Phillips finished with one sack and one forced fumble.
Shamar Greene and Cornelius Raye carried much of the load offensively. Greene rushed for 154 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries, an average of 7.3 yards per carry. He broke a 59-yard TD run late in the fourth quarter that put the game away. Raye finished with a career high 151 receiving yards on six catches.
Leroy McClain caught three passes for 49 yards and one touchdown. Marcus Carter caught three passes for 17 yards and one score and Brett Crenshaw caught one pass for a one-yard touchdown, his first receiving TD since moving to tight end this year.
Dante Nania took care of the ball and finished the game 17-of-32 for 249 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He has thrown for 559 yards with eight touchdowns and no interceptions in his last two outings.
Andrew Huska came up big in the special teams game again, despite heavy wind gusts. He managed to average 60.1 yards per kickoff and put five of seven kickoffs through the end zone for touchbacks.
Virginia Union was led by quarterback Swaheem Dowdy, who completed 29-of-52 passes for 375 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions and also ran for two touchdowns. He got three big efforts from his receivers, led by Devin Anderson with game-highs of 10 catches for 174 yards and one touchdown. Olu Izegwire added five catches for 93 yards and Chazto McKenzie caught seven passes for 71 yards. Hakeem Holland rushed for 28 yards on 11 carries against the The Rock’s top ranked rushing defense in the country.
Slippery Rock started the scoring with a 55-yard drive that took just six plays and was capped by a Greene touchdown run from two yards out that made it 7-0 with 4:36 to play in the first quarter.
The Rock added to the lead on Virginia Union’s next series when Williams picked off a pass and returned it 24 yards for a TD. The PAT snap didn’t allow for a kick and the conversion attempt was no good to make it 13-0 after the first quarter.
The Panthers got on the board with a 12-play, 75-yard drive early in the second quarter when Dowdy connected with Anderson from five yards out to make it 13-7 with 12:31 left in the first half.
Slippery Rock pushed the lead back out to 12 points after recovering a fumble to swing momentum back in its favor. Nania hit McClain in the corner of the end zone on 3rd and goal from the 18 for the TD. The defender had a play on the ball, but tipped it in the air to McClain, who pulled it down in the end zone. That made the score 19-7 after the PAT was blocked.
Carter added to the lead with a highlight reel grab from eight yards out with 4:47 to play that made the score 26-7 with 4:47 left in the first half, a score that would stand until the break.
The Rock put the pressure on right away in the second half, taking the opening possession 70 yards in 11 plays and scoring on a pass to Crenshaw to make it 33-7 with 11:39 to play in the third.
Virginia Union didn’t quit and battled back with scores on each of the next two possessions, both TD runs from Dowdy. He rushed in from one yard out with 10:27 to play in the third and again with 5:50 to play to make it a 33-21 game late in the third.
The Panthers were driving again in the fourth quarter and had a first and goal at the 1-yard line with a chance to make it a one-possession game, but Slippery Rock came up with three big run stops and then recorded a sack and forced a fumble on fourth down and took over to end the threat.
That would be the last solid offensive possession for the visitors and Slippery Rock put the game away when Greene broke free down the right side for a 59-yard TD with 3:21 to play.
Slippery Rock will turn its attention to the second round of the NCAA playoffs and next Saturday’s opponent, Assumption. The Rock and Assumption have played only one common opponent this year with SRU playing at New Haven in the season opener and Assumption playing New Haven twice, including last week in the Northeast 10 title game. The Rock defeated New Haven 39-13 on the road. Assumption defeated New Haven twice at home with scores of 23-17 and 17-14.