It all comes down to this.
After months of dedication, spring weight-lifting sessions, two-a-day practices in the blistering August heat and countless hours of film, the Shippensburg University football team has overcome all odds to reach the PSAC Championship game for the first time since 2009.
Picked to finish fourth in the PSAC East in the preseason, head coach Mark Maciejewski told reporters that he was not going to put any stock in any preseason predictions. He knew what he had on the field and he believed that the Raiders could make a statement this season.
And what a statement it was.
The Raiders dismantled their opposition thoroughly in their first 10 games, blowing the doors off their competitors before they had time to grab a water break. Halftime, in most cases, signified the end of the fray as SU outscored its opponents 309-140 during the first half.
SU, running the spread-offense to near perfection, boasts the No. 1-scoring offense in the nation averaging 566.5 yards per game and is second in the nation in points per game (52.7).
The offense has seen a resurgence in the last two years behind the lead of offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich. Yurcich scrapped the wing-T offense of the past and put in place an offense that quarterback Zach Zulli had been accustomed to from his high school days — the spread. With a colorful array of formations, cadences and audibles, the Raiders have run this offense almost perfectly.
The beneficiaries of the spread attack, Zulli and wide receiver Jacob Baskerville, have helped the Raiders blast through the record books this year. Zulli’s 402.7 yards of total offense per game leads the nation, while Baskervillle ranks seventh in the nation in receiving yards per game (107.5).
Of course, one cannot mention the Raider offense without tailback Mike Frenette and receiver Trevor Harman. The two have become synonymous with clutch performance and have given Zulli multiple options in his arsenal.
An offensive line anchored by Jason Brady has been one of the most stable in the PSAC. They have given Zulli an ample amount of time to throw and provided Frenette plenty of space to rumble. The offensive line will need to come up big again if it plans on winning the “State Game.”
The defense, led by a strong linebacking core and an aggressive defensive line, has stepped up big when needed, including a heroic goal-line stand against West Chester University three weeks ago.
The Raiders know what they need to do — they have done it all year. With its back against the wall, this Raider squad has come through time and again to maintain its unblemished record.
That unblemished record that will face a formidable counterpart in Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
The Crimson Hawks waited until the end of the season to clinch the PSAC West after pulling out a 38-35 victory against basement-dweller Gannon University.
IUP boasts the No. 1 total defense in the nation, allowing 239.9 yards per game and only 70 yards on the ground. However, despite these averages, IUP is facing a completely different monster when the Raiders come to town.
The PSAC West boasts more of a stack-them-up/run-it-down-your-throat style of play. Therefore, IUP must adjust to the run-and-gun style of play that the Raiders will bring.
The IUP defense looks to be up to the challenge. The Crimson Hawks’ defensive line has 28 sacks and 15 interceptions on the year. John Franco looks to be up for the challenge of stopping SU’s aerial attack. The ball-hawk has six interceptions on the year and his shutdown play has forced opposing quarterbacks to avoid whatever side of the field he is on.
On the offensive side of the ball, IUP’s strength is on the ground. It will try to take advantage of SU’s 27th-ranked defense behind tailback Harvie Tuck. Tuck has been a workhorse this year, netting 1,573 yards on 238 carries. He has hit pay dirt 15 times — tied for fifth in the nation.
SU will need to exploit the quarterback position. It is imperative that the Raiders hold Tuck to short gains so that the Crimson Hawks are forced to throw. IUP is mediocre through the air, and the game can and will come down to how successful it can be on first and second downs.
The Raiders have come a long way this year, and IUP will be a formidable test, but with Zulli, Baskerville, Harman and Bryan Barley poised to have big games, SU will take this game. SU wins 42-31.