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Slippery Rock offense struggles in playoff defeat

| Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, 6:24 p.m.

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Slippery Rock's first trip to the NCAA Division II playoffs in 14 years came to a crashing halt against Winston-Salem State on Saturday afternoon at windy Bowman Gray Stadium.

The Rams, the defending Division II runner-ups, held The Rock to a season-low 210 yards to come away with a 27-20 victory in a first-round matchup.

All three of The Rock's touchdowns came on Rams turnovers, but it was the offense that was bogged down all game. Slippery Rock twice fell behind by two touchdowns and couldn't catch up.

“The difference was Winston-Salem's defense,” Slippery Rock coach George Mihalik said. “It wasn't the wind. They have a strong defense, and we had trouble establishing a running game, and if you can't get that running game going, it's tough to pass.”

Mihalik benched quarterback Nigel Barksdale, the PSAC Offensive Player of the Year, for the first quarter for discipline reasons. Zach Newsock, who started in place of Barksdale, staked The Rock (9-3) to an early lead after WSSU fumble.

Running back Teddy Blakeman scored on a 2-yard run, but a bobble on the hold on the point-after attempt kept Slippery Rock's lead at 6-0.

Winston-Salem State (10-1) tied the score later in the first quarter on a Josh Glisson TD catch from Rudy Johnson, but the Rams also missed the point-after attempt.

When Will Miller scored on a 1-yard touchdown catch from Johnson for a 13-6 lead, Winston-Salem State never looked back.

Barksdale entered the game in the second quarter but struggled and had an interception that Larry Hearne returned 70 yards for a touchdown to make it 20-6 with 7:20 left in the half.

Quindell Dean of The Rock grabbed a tipped ball for an interception and an 18-yard touchdown with 2:41 left in the half to make it 20-13.

Barksdale finished 9 of 22 for 67 yards passing and three interceptions. He also had 15 carries for 36 yards. Newsock completed 5 of 12 passes for 86 yards.

Mihalik did not make players available for interviews afterward.

“I felt like we were in the game and felt like we had a chance to win the football game right up until the end,” Mihalik said. “We were one touchdown away, so we just needed to make some big plays on offense and we couldn't do it. We couldn't do it all day.”

With 6:28 left in the third quarter, the Rams increased their lead to 27-13, but Slippery Rock cut the deficit to seven when Barksdale scored on a 1-yard run with 2:41 to go in the period.

In the fourth quarter, Slippery Rock tried to make a comeback while facing a 25 mph wind, but couldn't sustain any drives.

“No, I don't think so,” Mihalik said when asked if the benching of Barksdale hurt the team's momentum. “We moved the ball that first drive. It was more penalties, and they were a big thing.

“One time we had a first-and-30 because we had three straight holding calls. We hurt ourselves early in the game, and I think that gave Winston-Salem some real good momentum on their defense.”

The Rock had 12 penalties for 116 yards, and the Rams had 17 penalties for 155 yards.

The Rams generated 477 yards but had a season-high four turnovers. Johnson passed for 315 yards and three touchdowns — to go with three interceptions — and rushed for a game-high 86 yards.

“Based on the amount of points we scored, you would have to put them on the top,” Mihalik said about WSSU's defense.

The loss ended a season in which Slippery Rock qualified for the D-II playoffs for the first time since 1999.

“I'm real proud of our guys, and we play in a tough, physical conference,” Mihalik said. “We were a little beat up coming into today's game. We had some guys who found a way to play, but I'm proud of the fact that we were one of 24 teams who were invited to play for the national championship.

“That says something about your body of work over an entire season.”

John Dell is a freelance writer.

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