Momentum matters in Mercyhurst-Cal (Pa.) matchup
When: Noon Saturday
Records: Cal (7-2, 6-2 PSAC); Mercyhurst (5-4, 5-3)
Victorious in its last five games, including contests against PSAC West co-leaders Slippery Rock and Gannon, Mercyhurst enters its West division finale against Cal (Pa.) with a hearty dose of momentum.
Yet 13th-year Lakers coach Marty Schaetzle wonders whether his team is ready to match the intensity he expects to see from the Vulcans at Tullio Field in Erie.
Mercyhurst has another upset in mind when it meets Cal, which is embroiled in off-the-field drama following the arrest of six players for their involvement in an off-campus assault Oct. 30 and a consequent forfeit of last week’s game against Gannon.
The Vulcans, who’ve lost their last two meetings with Mercyhurst, can become the West division representative in the PSAC championship game with a victory and some help from Slippery Rock on Saturday. A Lakers win creates several alternate scenarios, including one in which Mercyhurst would advance to the State Game as the top team in a five-way tie in the PSAC West.
“We’ve addressed the (Cal) situation in terms of the big picture and how it pertains to us, but then we quickly got into the football part,” Schaetzle said. “Coach (Mike) Kellar and his staff do a great job. They’re going to be a better football team because of this. There are quality people in that program who are going to come together, so we are expecting to get California’s best game of the year.”
Cal was in position to clinch the top spot in the PSAC West prior to its forfeit. The Vulcans followed a 24-21 overtime loss Sept. 13 at PSAC East-leading Bloomsburg with six wins in a row. Their victories over IUP and then-unbeaten Slippery Rock made them favorites to claim the PSAC West crown and helped move them into the American Football Coaches Association’s top 25 rankings.
Kellar and his players have not been available for comment since the incident.
The Cal players charged in the incident are no longer with the team. The most notable departures were junior defensive back Rodney Gillin, who made 26 tackles and started six games, and senior defensive back Corey Ford, who had 23 tackles and three starts.
More than enough talent remains for the Vulcans to earn their first State Game berth since 2009.
“We know we’ve got our hands full,” Schaetzle said. “We need the stars to line up right and a full moon out there to compete with them, but we’ll be ready.”
Mercyhurst will look to a collection of WPIAL alums for major contributions.
Lakers sophomore running back and return specialist Drew Robinson, a Union grad, averages a team-high 97.1 all-purpose yards.
Junior wide receiver Jaquan Williams (Penn Hills) and redshirt senior tight end R.J. Miller (North Hills) are Mercyhurst’s top two pass catchers, while junior Jordan Farrow (Central Valley) has started every game on an offensive line that has allowed just nine sacks.
And senior linebacker Garrett Wild (Baldwin) and redshirt junior defensive back Keith Robinson Jr. (Gateway) are fifth and fourth in tackles on the team, respectively, while redshirt senior defensive lineman Nick Kurpakus (Shaler) is the sacks leader.
The difficulty of the Lakers’ early-season schedule partially explained Mercyhurst’s four-loss skid at the start to the season. They met PSAC East leaders Bloomsburg (9-0, 8-0) and West Chester (8-1, 7-1) in back-to-back weeks and then traveled to IUP (6-3, 5-3).
“After our first couple games, we knew we were going to get better, because there was no other place to go,” Schaetzle said. “Our coaches and players have done a great job keeping everything together and making something of this season.”
Though he hasn’t kept an eye on Bloomsburg and West Chester — currently No. 5 and No. 18 in the AFCA, respectively — since those games, Schaetzle considers Cal the toughest opponent the Lakers will meet.
“I think they’ve been the best team in our conference, East and West combined, throughout the year,” he said. “They seem to be playing at a whole other level this year, in terms of big plays and being fundamentally sound, from the line to the skill guys.”