District college football preview: Gannon visits Cal (Pa.) in PSAC West showdown
Game of the week: Gannon at California (Pa.)
• When: Noon, Saturday
• Records: G: 4-3, 3-1; C: 5-2, 3-1
The Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West Division title race has grown murkier by the week, and Gannon deserves credit for setting this mess in motion.
A 38-27 win over Slippery Rock on Sept. 21, though seemingly innocuous at the time, gave the Golden Knights what now is a critical head-to-head edge over The Rock, which is tied with Gannon and California (Pa.) atop the division standings and now appears in national polls.
Slippery Rock and California play next week, so the Vulcans can't afford a loss to Gannon if they wish to remain in title contention.
Another clump of teams — Indiana (Pa.), Mercyhurst and Edinboro — sits behind the PSAC West leaders at 2-2 in the standings, so the loser of Gannon-California will not settle into any less precarious of a slot.
Gannon enters this game after a topsy-turvy two weeks against its Erie-area rivals. The Golden Knights beat Edinboro, 55-14, to secure their first win in their all-time series with the Fighting Scots. Then last week, they fell to Mercyhurst, 51-21.
Senior running back Jansen Jones (147.6 ypg) and sophomore quarterback Liam Nadler (289.4 passing ypg) bolster an offense that's averaging 35.7 points per game.
The Vulcans opened the year 3-0, lost games to IUP and PSAC East opponent West Chester, and then recovered with decisive wins over Clarion and Seton Hill.
Senior defensive end/linebacker B.J. Stevens, a Gateway grad who is second on the team in tackles (44) and first in tackles for losses (6 1⁄2) and sacks (5 1⁄2), anchors a defense that's allowing 15.4 points and 304.3 yards per game.
While their futures are fuzzy at best, Gannon and California's shared history is unambiguous. Since joining the PSAC in 2008, the Golden Knights have not come close to defeating California.
The Vulcans won 41-0 a year ago, and each of their five wins over Gannon came by at least 18 points.
Saturday's other games to watch
• Geneva at Waynesburg, 1:30 p.m.
Waynesburg (5-2, 3-2) watched its hopes of a Presidents' Athletic Conference title shrink considerably with last week's 27-20 loss to Bethany, which blocked a field goal late in the fourth quarter and then drove 98 yards for the game-winning touchdown. The Yellow Jackets have no time to sulk, as they host Geneva (4-2, 3-1), which needs to win to keep its championship aspirations alive. Waynesburg beat the Golden Tornadoes, 21-20, last year with the help of a blocked extra point late in the first half and a touchdown late in the second.
• Indiana (Pa.) at Mercyhurst, noon
With back-to-back losses, IUP (5-2, 2-2) has fallen from No. 7 in Division II to unranked and barely receiving votes in the American Football Coaches Association poll. The defending PSAC champion Crimson Hawks, who led Division II in scoring defense and total defense prior to the skid, allowed Edinboro to gain 419 yards during their 36-30 loss last week. Now they must prepare for the Lakers (4-3, 2-2), who set a school record with 628 yards of offense in last week's win over Gannon.
• Slippery Rock at Edinboro, noon
The Rock (6-1, 3-1) continues to climb the Division II polls. It moved up two spots to No. 22 in the D2Football.com rankings, and it took the top spot among “Others receiving votes” in the AFCA poll. Slippery Rock must remain sharp against the Fighting Scots (4-3, 2-2), whose upset of IUP was their first win over a nationally ranked team since the 2010 season opener. Edinboro rallied from a 13-point halftime deficit to force overtime a year ago against Slippery Rock, which won, 38-31.
• Duquesne at Bryant, 1 p.m.
The Dukes (4-2, 2-0) are the only team still unbeaten in Northeast Conference play. A missed extra point allowed them to beat Robert Morris, 21-20, last week. Bryant (3-4, 1-1) is on a three-game losing streak. Duquesne scored 18 points unanswered in the fourth quarter to beat Bryant, 35-21, last year.
• Next fall, Slippery Rock and Mercyhurst are headed to “The Big House.” The schools announced this past weekend that they'll meet at Michigan's storied stadium on Oct. 18, 2014. Their opportunity stems from Slippery Rock's history with Michigan, as The Rock will celebrate its 35th anniversary of playing at the stadium. Slippery Rock lost to Shippensburg, 45-14, in 1979 and also fell to Wayne State, 14-13, in 1981. The Slippery Rock-Shippensburg game set a record for the largest crowd (61,143) at a Division II contest.
• A Northgate alum now holds the reins to Edinboro's offense for the rest of the season. Redshirt freshman Jon Girvin has handled quarterback duties as a replacement for Edinboro senior quarterback Cody Harris, who was listed as game-to-game the last five weeks. Harris will miss the rest of the season with an undisclosed injury, the team announced Wednesday. Harris, a second-team All-PSAC West selection the last two seasons and starter since 2010, suffered the injury in the Fighting Scots' second game of the year and did not appear in any contests thereafter. Edinboro will request a medical hardship waiver for Harris, who ranks second in team history in career total offense with 7,854 yards. Girvin has performed well as Harris' replacement, completing 64 of 141 pass attempts for 815 yards and five touchdowns.
• Two stars in Slippery Rock's high-powered offense, quarterback Nigel Barksdale and wide receiver John Schademan, are closing in on single-season school records. Barksdale, a senior who has thrown for 2,446 yards and 22 touchdowns, needs 106 yards to break the passing yardage record set by Cody Endres in 2011 and two more scores to pass the TD mark set by Nate Crookshank in 2007. Schademan, a redshirt senior from Bethel Park, has 11 touchdown receptions and needs two more to replace the record set by Greg Hopkins in 1994. He also needs 79 receiving yards to become the school's fifth player with 1,000 in a season.
• Bethany sophomore wide receiver Eric Blinn remains a major reason for the Bisons' presence in the Presidents' Athletic Conference title race. The Western Beaver grad had 11 receptions for 154 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner with 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter of last week's 27-20 win over Waynesburg. Blinn ranks second in Division III in receiving (139.8 ypg) and second in receptions per game (10.3). Surprisingly, he has just three touchdown catches this season.
Player to watch: Devin Ghafoor
• School: Edinboro
• Position: Cornerback
• Height: 6-foot
• Weight: 175 pounds
• Year: Junior
• Of note: Ghafoor, a Perry alum, has served as a game-changer the past few weeks. He earned PSAC West Defensive Player of the Week honors for the second time since the start of October for his performance in Edinboro's upset win over Indiana (Pa.), which included a blocked punt that a teammate returned for a touchdown and two interceptions. He earned the previous player of the week distinction after finishing with a blocked field goal, a sack and a 38-yard interception return in a win over Lock Haven. Ghafoor, who made spot starts at both defensive back and wide receiver as a sophomore, leads the team in solo tackles (31), and he's first in the PSAC in passes defended (11).