Slippery Rock coach George Mihalik proudly and promptly noted Thursday that his team will represent the West division in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference’s championship game for the third time in four years Saturday at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium.
Mihalik left out that The Rock lost its past two State Game appearances.
He also skipped any suggestion that the third time will be a charm because Mihalik grasps the enormity of the challenge.
Continuing a trend, Slippery Rock enters the State Game as the underdog. The Rock (8-2) moved up as high as No. 19 in the American Football Coaches Association rankings before back-to-back losses in mid-October dropped it out of the rankings and off the list of “others receiving votes.” Slippery Rock is No. 8 in the latest NCAA Super Region One rankings and must reach the top six to qualify to the playoffs.
Defending PSAC champ Bloomsburg (10-0), meanwhile, started the season ranked No. 24 and has climbed to No. 5. It is the top team in Super Region One.
“There are no secrets with them,” Mihalik said. “They’re strong, they’re physical, they have an excellent running game, and their defense is very physical or aggressive. Whether you play them this year, last year or two years from now, that format has been successful for them, so that’s the style of team you’re going to play.”
Bloomsburg, which has won 10 straight in the series, beat Slippery Rock, 42-38, in the 2013 title game at the Huskies’ home field with a second-half comeback that included a 10-yard touchdown run in the game’s final 30 seconds.
The player who scored that game-winner, running back Franklyn Quiteh, received the Harlon Hill Trophy as Division II’s top player and graduated.
But the Huskies, who lost several other stars, rebuilt and pieced together a defense that allows a PSAC-low 12.6 points per game and continues to pound the ball on offense — now with senior Eddie Mateo at running back.
“Last year, we graduated probably as talented as senior class as we’ve ever had, so we knew it’d be tough to play to that potential,” Bloomsburg coach Paul Darragh said. “We were able to hold up defensively and buy some time for our offense to come around, which it certainly has.”
Darragh identified The Rock’s running game as one of its most improved areas from a season ago. But he considers blocking Slippery Rock’s defensive front the Huskies’ truly daunting task.
Rock redshirt freshman defensive end Marcus Martin, a West Mifflin graduate, leads the PSAC in tackles for a loss (22.5) and sacks (16).
“We were a little bit younger on the offensive line this year,” Darragh said. “We’ve come on and certainly played well, but it’ll probably be the stiffest challenge we’ve seen this year in terms of defensive fronts.”
Redshirt senior quarterback Jared Buck, a West Allegheny alum who replaced redshirt sophomore Zack Newsock as the starter after six games, will try to help The Rock repair the damage done to their credentials by the back-to-back losses to Cal (Pa.) and Mercyhurst.
“It was more of a humbling experience,” Buck said. “After winning five straight, a lot of us thought we were everything, just the best team out there. Those teams showed us we weren’t, so we regrouped and kind of started over, just realizing we need to do our jobs and not worry about anything else.”