When the DII Football Championship gets underway this weekend, the California University (Pa.) Vulcans won’t be on the field. However, unlike recent years, this time it is because they earned a first-round bye, taking home their first Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference title since 2008. Cal U will prepare for the NCAA postseason for the first time since 2011.
The 2016 story of the Vulcans is even more exciting when you realize that rookie head coach Gary Dunn was a four-year starter at Cal U. Dunn played for the Vulcans from 1991 to 1994, a period in which the program won a mere 10 games.
This season, in his PSAC debut, Dunn went 10-0 at the helm of his alma mater.
“It’s been great. From the first day that our staff came in, we knew we had a chance to be pretty good,” Dunn said. “I built a lot of relationships at California University from when I played until now, so I know a lot of people on campus. And obviously the alumni outreach has been tremendous having a former Vulcan as head coach, it certainly has helped quite a bit.”
RELATED: Interactive DII Football bracket
When Dunn graduated, he spent two years as a graduate assistant with Cal U before heading to the FCS and taking on a role of offensive coordinator, first with Morehead State and then with Duquesne. His offensive prowess showed immediately, as the Vulcans defeated their first two opponents by a combined score of 140-3.
“When you go out in your first couple games and you score a lot of points, the buy in from the players is immediately there,” Dunn said. “They understand what we are trying to do. They are excited about it because it is working and then that really just breeds for the rest of the year.”Despite the prolific offense that not only leads the PSAC but also the nation with 52.1 points a game — led by the PSAC Offensive Player of the Year, senior wide receiver Garry Brown — Cal U's defense has been even more astounding. The unit is No. 1 in the PSAC, allowing just 13.6 points a contest, which is good for third-best in the nation. The Vulcans also top the PSAC in rushing defense (81.5 yards per game), passing defense (172.7 yards per game) and total defense (257.3 yards per game), fifth-best in the nation.
“I’ll tell you, it’s incredible to watch those guys,” Dunn said of his defense. “They’ve made our offense so much better. To watch both those sides compete on a daily basis in practice is really fun to watch.”
The Vulcans recently made program history when 19 players earned All-PSAC honors. Nearly all members of the defense were represented on either the first or second team. They were represented at every level of defense on the first team by senior defensive lineman Jawan Turner, senior defensive back Aaron Terry and junior linebacker Luke Hrapchak.
RELATED: DII football power rankings
“It’s awesome. We all love the game of football,” Hrapchak said of his defensive mates. “We all play our hardest every time we are on the field. Iron sharpens iron, you know? It’s nice to play with people that you are invested in, and it’s also nice to have coaches that put us in a good situation, too, to succeed in every game.”
Hrapchak is the reigning PSAC Defensive Player of the Week after a huge PSAC Championship Game that saw him register 15 tackles, one sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Losing this game wasn’t an option. Junior quarterback Michael Keir’s five touchdowns and complete domination by Hrapchak and the defense made sure of it.
“Ever since I came to Cal that has always been the goal, to get to the championship game,” Hrapchak said. “I feel like we had so much invested into that situation that we had no other option but to play our hearts out and win that PSAC game. I feel like as a team we always felt like we fell a game short, and we were sick of it. Sick of being a game short of the big dance, and being on the outside looking in. So we came together and we weren’t going to take anything less than winning the West and the PSAC. It was a great feeling.”
RELATED: First-round games to watch
Whereas Dunn sees the defense making the offense better by pushing them in practice, Hrapchak sees it differently on gameday. This smothering defense can take more chances, and the players don't have to go to the bench with their heads down after a poor series. The trust on both sides of the ball runs deep.
“It’s always a great feeling to know that if we had a bad series on defense that our offense still got us," Hrapchak said. "Regardless of the situation they are in, they are a very explosive offense. They score at any time. As a defense it was always nice to know that the other side of the ball was taken care of.”While having the top offense in the nation shouldn’t come as a surprise by a team led by a lifelong offensive coordinator, the superb play of the defense may be a bit shocking. Always humble, Dunn knows where the credit lies.
“We have really good football players,” Dunn said. “We have an upperclassmen-oriented defense, and I think the best thing that I did was hiring very good defensive coaches. Coach Craig, our defensive coordinator, has done a tremendous job of not just implementing our scheme but having our players buy into it from day one. I really can’t take too much of the credit, I’ve surrounded myself with good people.”
Now, the momentum this steam roller of a Vulcan football team has must be placed on hold for one week. All eyes will be on upstart Fairmont State as it takes on Indiana (Pa.) to see who plays Cal U a week from this Saturday. While they may have off on the schedule, the Vulcans plan to keep grinding.
“We’re hungry,” Hrapchak said. “We’re working every single day whether we have a bye week or not. We’re definitely a bit antsy, we have a few guys that would play today if they could. We’re just trying to stay focused and doing the little things correctly.”
“We’re extremely excited,” Dunn added. “We’re prepared everyday to keep this thing going as long as we can. If we focus on California football a lot of good things can happen to us. We’ll be ready to play whoever we have to play.”