Despite a rain soaked Seth Grove Stadium to open the season, nothing could dampen Shippensburg University quarterback Ryan Zapoticky’s day on Saturday, as the Red Raiders rolled over NE-10 opponent, American International College (AIC), 41-7, in their home opener.
Zapoticky, celebrating his birthday, shined in the opener, completing 29-of-46 passes for 342 and three touchdowns — while adding a fourth on the ground in the rout.
“This team has something,” SU head coach Mark “Mac” Maciejewski said. “It has character, passion, emotion. The guys care about each other and when you have 88 guys who can play like that, it’s fun to watch.”
The potent Red Raider offense gave the Yellow Jackets fits all day, as Zapoticky shredded AIC’s formidable pass defense with an extremely young receiving core. Led by sophomore Kyle Haines, the wide receivers showcased promise, as seven different Raiders caught a pass. SU’s Cole Chiappialle quietly ran for 108 yards in the win.
“Looking up and down our roster we had a lot of young guys, but we knew we had talent that was unknown,” Zapoticky said. “We just stuck to our game plan and a lot of guys stepped up today.”
SU wasted no time getting on the board in the first quarter, driving straight down the field after recovering a fumble in AIC territory. Zapoticky capped off the nine play, 38-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown run by Zapoticky to give SU a 7-0 lead.
The rest of the game’s opening quarter remained quiet, before the Red Raiders opened the floodgates.
Billy Deane hit a 24-yard field goal and Zapoticky connected with Shea O’Donnell for a 13-yard touchdown, before finding Haines for another score — a 35-yard touchdown pass that broke the game open, giving SU a 24-0 lead. Haines caught seven passes for 93 yards and a touchdown.
“That was in our game plan,” Zapoticky said. “They have a very talented defense. We started off strong and that’s always great.”
The Yellow Jackets finally got on the board before the half ended, as AIC’s Kwame Jarvis connected with Tommy Smith for a 31-yard touchdown pass. The damage was already done, however, as American International failed to muster anything after halftime.
With the Red Raiders rolling offensively, the defense was also dominant. In his first start replacing star linebacker Allen Holman, sophomore Tig Spinelli was a force, making 11 tackles and forcing two fumbles. J.T. Hopple and Dennis Robinson also excelled replacing Chad Miller and D.J. Burkey in the secondary.
“I’m very proud of them for doing that,” Maciejewski said. “I really thought those young guys came out and played their game. You couldn’t tell they were really nervous at all.”
The linebacker core of Spinelli, Tyler Emge and Steven Cain proved to formidable, as the group knocked down numerous passes, stuffed the AIC running game and kept the Yellow Jackets from mustering much offensively. The Red Raiders held American International to just 245 total yards.
“We definitely want to keep getting takeaways and give the ball to our offense, which I believe is the best in the conference,” Emge said. “We need to keep flying to the ball and playing our game.”
The defense made things impossible for Jarvis, as the Red Raiders swarmed the Yellow Jackets, holding AIC to 4-of-17 on third down.
In the second half, Zapoticky continued to showcase a strong connection with his receiving core, finding redshirt-freshman Winston Eubanks for a 33-yard touchdown with 7:42 left to play. Zapoticky seemed to have found a special connection with Eubanks, as he led SU with eight receptions for 120 yards and a touchdown.
“It was surreal. It felt like a dream,” Eubanks said. “Coaches got on us all week to prepare and the veteran guys showed us the ropes, so we just followed in their footsteps.”
With the strong performance, Zapoticky is the only quarterback to throw for more than 223 yards in a single game against AIC since 2015. Zapoticky also threw for 365 yards against AIC last season. He credited his offensive line for his success.
“This is probably the best I’ve felt after a game, ever,” Zapoticky said. “I was almost unscathed today. They did a great job and it always starts up front.”
The Red Raider defense ended the game with yet another forced turnover — a pick-six by Eric Dzieniszewski. SU forced five turnovers in the game.
“We always talk about getting turnovers and going for the ball,” Maciejewski said. “Turnovers happen when players run to the ball and are committed to finishing the play. They’ll come and continue to come as long as we finish the plays.”
With the win, SU will now set its sight on Gannon University. The Golden Knights defeated the Raiders 24-20 last season at Seth Grove Stadium. Gannon dominated Southern Connecticut State 55-22 to open its season.
SU’s dominate win brings a lot of confidence for Maciejewski and the Raiders heading into next week.
“The effort and passion is there,” Maciejewski said. “That will make me sleep a little better at night knowing that I have a locker room full of guys who care. We will fix our other mistakes, but it’s great to see guys playing and having fun.”
The Red Raiders will kickoff Saturday, Sept. 9, at 12 p.m. at Gannon.