The Shippensburg University football team was looking to bounce back after a pair of difficult losses in a row when it traveled to No. 12-ranked West Chester to take on the Golden Rams in a Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) rivalry.
Costly turnovers were once again the story of the day as the team committed four on the way to a 28–21 heartbreaker.
Redshirt-freshman quarterback Brycen Mussina struggled once again behind center, throwing four interceptions on the day and increasing his season total to 11. He threw for 350 yards and a touchdown, but the turnovers came on good drives in West Chester territory for the most part. The offense struggled mightily all day as West Chester kept the ground game completely locked up.
The Red Raider running backs totaled nine net yards on the ground all game, putting the game squarely on Mussina’s shoulders. It can be difficult on a freshman quarterback to carry his offense all game with no support.
His 357 passing yards was a career-high, however, as he did his best to move the offense. Redshirt-junior wide receiver Josh Gontarek continued his impressive season, reeling in more than 150 yards on the day to lead the way for the Red Raiders.
A theme so far this season, SU committed 11 penalties for 116 yards, while West Chester did not fare much better, throwing in 13 penalties of its own for 118 yards. The Red Raiders have been involved in two PSAC East contests so far this season, and those two games have had a combined 516 penalty yards.
The defense played very well, forcing three turnovers by the Golden Rams and limiting the offense to well below its season average in points; but the mistakes on offense put the defense in difficult situations and the unit could only hold up for so long. The defense held WCU scoreless in the first quarter, forcing a crucial turnover midway through the quarter.
After Golden Rams quarterback A.J. Long pulled off a 52-yard run to SU’s 12-yard line, redshirt-junior corner John Chaney III forced WCU running back Mark Dukes to fumble at the 7-yard line. One of three turnovers forced by the Red Raiders on the day, Chaney came in huge when needed the most after a big play.
The first score of the game came less than a minute into the second on a 17-yard touchdown pass from Long. SU would respond on its following drive with a 68-yard drive capped off by a 22-yard touchdown from Mussina to redshirt-junior receiver Kyle Haines to tie the score back up at seven.
West Chester got the ball back on its next drive at its own 39-yard line and quickly moved down the field on the way to another touchdown to retake the lead.
Mussina threw his first interception of the day on the following drive. He completed a 19-yard pass to Gontarek to move the ball to midfield, but then threw an interception to give possession back to the Golden Rams.
WCU was unable to capitalize off the interception as the offense moved down the field and deep into SU territory, only to be pushed back by a pair of penalties. Long had a 21-yard run on fourth down, but he was still 10 yards short of the first-down marker and gave the ball back to the Red Raiders.
Mussina’s second pick came on a crucial drive when the offense drove deep into West Chester territory on a couple chunk plays and penalties by the Golden Rams.
The ball was down at the WCU 29-yard line when Mussina threw the ball to cornerback Jarey Elder at the 17 to end the drive. A few short drives by both teams ended the half with SU down only 14–7 despite the pair of turnovers.
The Golden Rams started the second half with a bang as they charged down the field efficiently and Long had a 26-yard pass for the score — his second of the day — to put WCU up by two touchdowns.
After their next drive went nowhere, the Red Raiders punted the ball to the Golden Rams, but their punt returner fumbled the ball and the offense was back on the field at the West Chester 35-yard line. SU made quick work of the drive, and redshirt-freshman running back Sean Judge ran it in from one yard out to pull the Red Raiders back within one score.
Midway through the third quarter, Long tried a pass downfield, but it was intercepted by Chaney at the SU 23-yard line.
Chaney was involved with all three of SU’s turnovers on the day, forcing the earlier fumble, the interception and recovering the fumble on the punt.
With the game still up for grabs going into the fourth quarter, both teams traded scores on consecutive drives once again. Mussina threw his third interception on SU’s first drive of the final quarter on a pass in West Chester’s territory, and the Golden Rams’ offense would turn that chance into points, grabbing a 14-point lead with just less than nine minutes to go in the game.
Mussina led his offense downfield once again, using 12 plays to go 65 yards. Senior backup quarterback Chase Yocum was brought in the red zone and took the ball himself for the 2-yard score, narrowing the score to 28–21 with only three minutes remaining.
A great stand by the Red Raider defense stopped the Golden Rams on a 30-second possession to give the ball back to the offense with plenty of time to go.
Up until this point, Mussina had thrown three interceptions. There would be one more in him, and his fourth and final pick sealed the game for WCU.
On only the third play of the drive, Mussina’s pass found the hands of Elder for the second time for the turnover. There was an opportunity for a comeback with the amount of time left, but the interception was the nail in the coffin for SU.
Chaney and Gontarek were the leaders on either side of the ball on Saturday. Gontarek added another impressive game to his season résumé, increasing his season total to 444 yards receiving with three touchdowns.
He leads the team in both categories up to this point. Chaney now has three interceptions in the five games this season to go with 22 total tackles. He has become a leader on a unit that has become the cornerstone of the team so far.
SU will need to address the turnover problems on offense — as well as the penalty issues — before taking on LIU Post this Saturday in the team’s return to Seth Grove Stadium.
LIU Post is undefeated so far in the season and is coming off a dominant win over Merrimack College, posting 482 total yards in the victory. Kickoff for the non-conference matchup is at 1 p.m.