Slippery Rock rebounds, pulls away to defeat Cal
As California (Pa.) learned Saturday at Slippery Rock's Mihalik-Thompson Stadium, an offense that scores more than 45 points per game and averages almost 600 yards per contest will remain quiet for only so long.
The Rock (8-1, 5-1), which leads in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference in most offensive categories, recovered from a sluggish start and pulled away from the Vulcans (6-3, 4-2) to win 35-17 and claim sole possession of first place in the conference's West division as well as at least a share of the division title.
“The defense kept the game close till our offense could gather ourselves and get into a rhythm,” Slippery Rock coach George Mihalik said.
Ranked No. 24 in the American Football Coaches Association poll and No. 22 in the D2Football.com poll, Slippery Rock entered the game averaging 45.2 points and 574.7 yards with its no-huddle spread offense. But after one quarter, it trailed the Vulcans, 3-0, and was outgained 103 yards to 82.
“I came into this game feeling we had a really good chance to win it,” Cal coach Mike Kellar said. “We're a no-huddle team. That's how we practice, so we're built for this. (The no-huddle) never affected us at all. But they made the plays.”
Cal had a chance to lead by even more points as it drove inside Slippery Rock's 30-yard line twice. But rather than ask Cody Nuzzo, already responsible for a 44-yard field goal, for two more tries, the Vulcans went for it on fourth-and-3 on back-to-back possessions and watched Rock defenders knock down passes at the line of scrimmage both times.
The Rock defense clamped down in the second quarter and well past halftime as Cal gained just 128 yards in the game's middle two quarters.
“I wanted us to stay hungry,” said linebacker Quindell Dean, who had a game-high 16 tackles. “We knew this was going to happen. The offense started slow, so we said let's pick them up.”
Slippery Rock's offense found a spark via senior quarterback Nigel Barksdale, whose mobility became as valuable as his arm.
Barksdale, who started the game averaging 29.4 rushing yards per game, put The Rock on the board with a 16-yard touchdown scramble with 8:05 left in the second quarter. He had 111 rushing yards and 110 passing yards at halftime.
“I think once I hit that first run and we got that first touchdown, I think we smelled the blood in the water,” Barksdale said.
He finished with 125 yards and one touchdown on 14 carries and completed 26 of 48 pass attempts for 274 yards and two touchdowns.
Barksdale put up similar numbers —119 yards and one touchdown rushing, 283 yards and one touchdown passing — last year during a 28-26 Slippery Rock win over Cal, which has lost three straight in this series.
“We had the field covered and the kid sacked, but he spins out and gets a 25-yard gain,” Kellar said of Barksdale. “We've got guys who are All-Americans, who are great football players, but (Barksdale) broke their tackles and made plays. You take your hat off, and you say, ‘Hey, it was their day.' ”
After seemingly fading away during the past few weeks, Cal's quarterback controversy came back to life.
James Harris, who replaced Cody Schroeder as starter in the fifth game of the season, completed 3 of 21 for 26 yards. But he left the game with a head injury after sneaking the ball for 1 yard early in the third quarter, and Schroeder stepped in to spark the Vulcans offense.
In his first drive under center, Schroeder completed four of five passes for 33 yards and scrambled 14 yards for a touchdown.
He finished 11 of 26 for 176 yards and one touchdown. He also led the Vulcans in rushing with four carries for 26 yards.
“It hasn't been the easiest, but you've got to go day by day,” Schroeder said of going from starter to backup. “(The first touchdown drive) felt good. I think it boosted the team more than it boosted me.”