CALIFORNIA, Pa. — Veteran Slippery Rock head coach George Mihalik thought his team would need to play a perfect game in order to upset No. 13 California (Pa.) on Saturday.
He was wrong.
The Rock lost two fumbles and had a pair of punts blocked, but survived nonetheless and handed the Vulcans a 28-26 setback.
The win was SRU’s season-best third consecutive and improved the Green and White’s season records to 5-4 overall, 4-2 in PSAC West action.
With the loss, the Vulcans fell to 7-2 overall, 5-1 in division action and into a three-way tie with Indiana (Pa.) and Mercyhurst for the PSAC West lead. California, which beat Indiana (Pa.) earlier this fall, travels to Mercyhurst next Saturday to close out the PSAC West schedule.
The Rock host Lock Haven next Saturday in a 1 p.m. game to open a two-game homestand that will close out the Green and White’s 2012 season.
Saturday’s win marked the second consecutive season The Rock went toe-to-toe with and bested the Vulcans, who have won or shared seven consecutive PSAC West titles. The Rock handed then-No. 13-ranked California a 17-3 setback at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium in Slippery Rock.
The road to victory Saturday was paved by another stellar effort by junior quarterback Nigel Barksdale and a proverbial bend-but-don’t-break performance by The Rock defense.
Barksdale completed 15 of 22 passes for 283 yards and one touchdown without throwing an interception, but he did lose a pair of fumbles while trying to fight for more yardage on rushing attempts. Barksdale also rushed for 119 yards on 26 carries and scored one TD to finish the game with 402 total yards.
Redshirt freshman running back Brett Crenshaw rushed for two TDs for SRU.
Saturday’s game marked the fourth time in as many starts this fall Barksdale passed for more than 200 yards.
As a team, The Rock outgained California by a 468-313 total yardage margin Saturday.
California redshirt freshman quarterback Cody Schroeder, who started his third consecutive game in place of injured regular Peter Lalich, passed for 224 yards and one TD and was intercepted once.
The INT proved huge as it came with 39 seconds left in the game and the Vulcans in position to possibly attempt a game-winning field goal. Rock senior cornerback Anthony Saunders stepped in front of a Vulcans’ receiver to record the pick on an underthrown pass along the California sidelines.
The Rock took a 14-10 lead into the locker room at halftime, but could easily have enjoyed a larger advantage had they not committed miscues on three consecutive possessions.
A potential Rock scoring drive was killed by a Barksdale fumble inside the California 4-yard line midway through the second quarter of action.
One Rock possession earlier, Barksdale lost the ball while scrambing at the Rock 27. California All-American safety Rontez Miles scooped up the loose ball and sprinted to the end zone for the Vulcans’ only first-half touchdown. That play gave the hosts a 7-3 lead with 12:13 left in the second quarter.
The first points of the game came on a 42-yard field goal by Cody Nuzzo with 6:35 left to play in the first period. Those points came after the Vulcans’ offense had moved 56 yards in 18 plays, only to run into a Rock-solid defensive wall.
The Vulcans had a golden scoring opportunity in the opening minute of the second period when they had a first-and-goal at The Rock 8 thanks to a blocked punt. Three plays later, the hosts had to settle for a 22-yard field goal attempt, but Nuzzo’s boot hit the right post.
Sandwiched between the TD return by Nuzzo’s successful field goal and Miles’ TD return, The Rock took a 7-3 lead on a nine-yard run by Barksdale that capped an eight-play, 70-yard march with 3:39 left in the first period.
One series after Barksdale’s second lost fumble killed a potential Rock scoring drive at the California 4, he led the Green and White on a 17-play, 84-yard scoring drive that gave SRU its 14-10 halftime advantage. Barksdale connected with Bridgeforth on a four-yard TD pass to cap the drive with 0:11 left before the intermission.
While The Rock defense was throwing up a perpetual stop sign against the hosts’ offense in the opening 30 minutes of action, the Green and White offense moved the ball virtually at will.
SRU finished the half with a 282-128 total yardage advantage at halftime behind 175 passing and 86 rushing yards by Barksdale. Dutrieuille caught five passes for 96 yards to lead the receiving effort.
The Rock offense offense lost none of its momentum during the intermission as the Green and White went 73 yards in eight plays on the opening drive of the second half to push their lead to 21-10. Crenshaw culminated the drive with a one-yard run at the 11:48 mark of the third period.
California trimmed the deficit to 21-13 with 5:24 left in the third period with a 21-yard field goal by Nuzzo, but those points again came after The Rock defense stood tall inside its own 10-yard line.
Undaunted by the Vulcans’ three-point play, The Rock offense went 65 yards in five plays on the ensuing possession to extend the guests’ lead to 28-13 with 3:53 left in the third stanza. Crenshaw capped the drive with a four-yard TD run.
California came right back to move 71 yards in 14 plays and trimmed The Rock lead to 28-20 with 14:00 left to play on a two-yard TD pass from Schroeder to Mike Williams.
Two Rock possessions later, the Vulcans got their second blocked punt. Jeff Knox recovered the loose ball in the end zone for a touchdown, but the hosts’ pass attempt for a two-point conversion failed, so SRU held onto the lead, 28-26, with 7:06 left to play.
California’s final bid for a comeback was snuffed out with 0:39 left when Rock senior cornerback Anthony Saunders picked off a desperation pass at the SRU 30.
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