Heartbreakers have been on the menu the last few weeks as the Shippensburg University football team dropped another hard-fought contest, this time against LIU Post by a score of 41–39.
After losing close games to West Chester and Bloomsburg universities the previous two weeks, the Red Raiders came out firing in this matchup. Redshirt-freshman quarterback Brycen Mussina was looking to put up big numbers after shaky starts in the last several weeks.
Coming into the game, Mussina had 13 touchdown passes but also threw 11 interceptions. He looked very strong against LIU Post, but still made a couple questionable decisions.
Mussina finished just shy of 400 passing yards and four scores, but turned the ball over twice on the day. Mussina had his highest pass efficiency of the season, only missing on nine pass attempts. The deep ball was also a big factor for the Red Raiders.
Mussina had two touchdowns of 75 yards as the bookends for scoring plays for the Red Raiders. On the first score of the game, he found redshirt-sophomore wide receiver Winston Eubanks on a deep pass for the early lead.
Eubanks — an all-conference player last season — had beaten his man and was past the closest defender when Mussina dropped the ball right to him. Eubanks has not been as heavily involved with the SU offense as he was last season, but he has still been a playmaker when called upon.
The SU defense struggled mightily once again, not being able to stop the opposition on the most pivotal drives. On the last drive of the game, LIU Post was able to drive downfield without much resistance.
The key play came when the Pioneers were about to punt the ball from their own territory after being forced into a long fourth down. A botched snap pushed the ball back further, and the Post punter hurriedly kicked the ball when he ran back, only for a Red Raider to run into him and draw a penalty.
The Pioneers were awarded a first down, and were able to continue the drive and run out what little time was left on the clock before kicking the game-winning field goal.
For the first time in several tries, the Red Raiders were not severely punished with penalties. The team had fewer than 100 penalty yards for the first time since the loss to California University of Pennsylvania (CALU). This is not to say that there were no penalties committed in crucial situations, especially with the aforementioned penalty on the punt. The defense was caught a couple times for pass interference calls, but there were fewer killer penalties.
The game was the first in which the Red Raiders held a late lead and gave up the victory. In every other contest so far, the offense had played from behind in attempts to catch up to its opponent. SU had a 39–38 lead on LIU Post’s last drive after Mussina found redshirt-junior Josh Gontarek on a crazy play.
Gontarek got the ball about 20 yards downfield and made the rest of the play with his legs, avoiding several defenders with pure speed and running at an angle into the end zone.
Gontarek has been the story of the season for the Red Raiders. With his 75-yard touchdown and 159 total yards, he still sits at the top for SU in terms of receiving yards with 603 through six games.
He also has four touchdown receptions. Eubanks is in second with 441 yards and four scores as well after gaining 112 yards and two touchdowns against LIU Post. Gontarek ranks second in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) in total receiving yards.
Redshirt-sophomore Charles Headen III leads the team with five touchdowns. Headen scored for the Red Raiders against the Pioneers on a crafty play.
Mussina gave the ball to Headen with a shovel pass on a jet sweep-type play. Headen shook off a pair of tackles down the sideline and sped into the end zone to give SU a 27–15 lead midway through the third quarter.
The performance on offense for the Red Raiders against the Pioneers was exceptional, considering LIU Post had allowed 13 total points in the first three quarters across all four of its games up to that point. SU put up that many points in the third quarter and had 27 points across all three quarters. The Red Raiders’ 39 points were the most allowed by the Pioneers in a game all season.
The Red Raiders have now lost their last three games by a combined 13 points. All the matchups were there for SU to take, but the team could not take that last step and seal the wins.
Despite Mussina’s struggles, he has been stellar in several categories in his rookie campaign. He leads the PSAC in passing yards (1,913), completions (142) and touchdowns (17). His turnovers have been a nagging issue, but he has put up big numbers in his first season on the field.
While the defense struggled containing the Pioneers for most of the game, the defensive line was constantly putting pressure on LIU Post graduate quarterback Chris Laviano. Laviano was able to throw for more than 400 yards and four touchdowns, but he was sacked four times and was picked off two times. Redshirt-senior linemen Dakota Thompson and John Durkin both had 1 1/2 sacks and fellow redshirt-senior Nick Drawbaugh added the other sack.
Both interceptions were grabbed by linebackers. Redshirt-juniors Tig Spinelli and Colin Williams claimed their first career interceptions. The offense capitalized on both turnovers, turning them into touchdowns.
SU will look to take this offensive performance and improve on it, hopefully addressing the lack of a run game. The team earned zero net yards on the ground but scored two rushing touchdowns from senior quarterback Chase Yocum and redshirt-sophomore running back Raleigh Sirb.
The defense, however, will need to focus on limiting the passing game. The run defense was strong, only allowing 49 net yards, but the secondary allowed several chunk plays through the air that kept drives alive. The team needs to learn how to close out games when it has the opportunity and not let leads slip away on late drives.
The best part of the day, however, came at halftime. Make-A-Wish had once again partnered with SU Athletics and the Shippensburg University Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) to make a child’s dream come true.
Seven-year-old Liam Kepner joined the Red Raiders before the game for the coin toss and had a special ceremony at halftime. He ran to midfield, surrounded by Red Raiders and members of the SU marching band, a big smile lighting up his face the entire time — a trait that he has kept throughout his adversity.
Kepner was diagnosed with medulloblastoma when he was 5 and has been undergoing treatment and chemo ever since. He just finished chemotherapy and had a stem cell transplant. At halftime, he was given a variety of gifts by the SAAC.
The biggest surprise, however, came in a video announcement when he was told he would be taking a trip to Legoland in Florida next month. Kepner told Make-A-Wish representatives that he loves Legos and that his dream was to go to Legoland. The SAAC raised funds two years ago to grant his wish.
The Red Raiders will return to PSAC play when they travel to Millersville University to battle the Marauders next week. With only five games remaining in the season, SU needs to recover quickly if there is any hope of reaching the PSAC playoffs. Kickoff from Millersville is at 2 p.m. on Saturday.