This is a hard season to accept for the Shippensburg University football team.
After making the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) playoffs last season, the squad has been largely disappointing this year. Only one defeat has been a blowout, while the others have been close contests that went down to the last few drives.
This weekend’s game was no different, as a questionable call on SU’s next-to-last drive killed any hopes of a comeback. In a highly-contested PSAC matchup with Kutztown University on SU’s homecoming, the Red Raiders traded several leads with the Golden Bears throughout the game.
Redshirt-freshman quarterback Brycen Mussina had by far the best performance of his season and career, passing for 510 yards and four touchdowns.
Mussina had struggled in his first season under center for SU, dealing with turnovers and accuracy issues. This game was a complete turnaround from his previous performances and he almost singlehandedly led the squad to victory.
After an impressive running display against Millersville University in their shutout win last week, the Red Raiders could not get any momentum on the ground.
Redshirt-freshman running back Sean Judge led the way, earning 36 yards on five carries. After more than 250 yards rushing last week, the unit could only muster a net of 50 yards. The defense did great limiting the Golden Bears’ leading rusher, Craig Reynolds, to only a total of 21 yards on eight carries.
Both teams, however, relied primarily on their passing attacks during the game as both defenses were doing an impressive job of limiting ground plays.
KU quarterback Collin DiGalbo kept pace with Mussina for the majority of the game, finishing with a career-high 402 yards in the air. He also tossed three scores in key moments to clinch the win.
Two Red Raiders had more than 100 yards receiving on the day. Redshirt-sophomore All-PSAC receiver Winston Eubanks completed one of the best games of his season, reeling in 10 receptions for 138 yards and two touchdowns.
Mussina and Eubanks seemed to be struggling with miscommunication and could not connect very often this season, but this game was a good sign for what could be in store for the rest of the season, as well as the next couple years.
Eubanks was joined by another standout receiver in redshirt-junior Josh Gontarek. Since transferring from the University at Albany, Gontarek has become Mussina’s favorite target and that continued against KU. Gontarek finished with another monster stat line, grabbing 162 yards on nine catches, also contributing a 77-yard touchdown.
Gontarek now has 841 yards and five touchdowns in his first season with the Red Raiders, and has been one of the best stories of SU’s season and in the PSAC in general. If he continues his production levels through the remainder of the season, he seems destined to follow in Eubanks’s steps and grab All-PSAC honors.
The game started at a fast pace, with both teams trading scores early on. KU grabbed the first points of the game midway through the first quarter only for the Red Raiders to immediately respond. Mussina led a three-play, 56-yard drive to tie the score. He found Eubanks for a 36-yard score to capitalize on great field positioning after a 34-yard kick return.
Mussina stayed hot, taking control again after his defense quickly gave him the ball back with less than two minutes left in the first. That is all the time he needed, as the offense efficiently moved downfield and Mussina once again connected with Eubanks, this time on a 35-yard touchdown play as time expired in the opening sequence.
The Golden Bears responded at the halfway mark of the second quarter, as DiGalbo found Reynolds for a 13-yard touchdown to bring the score level at 14.
Once again, however, the SU offense did not want to be even with KU for long, as Mussina launched the ball downfield on the first play of the following drive and found Gontarek for a 77-yard score. Gontarek had to break a tackle before he was home free, but he showed great strength and concentration to find the end zone.
It seemed as if the Red Raiders were set to go into halftime with a 24–14 lead, as freshman kicker David Shank stepped up to attempt a 34-yard field goal.
The kick was blocked and the Golden Bears recovered the ball from their own 17-yard line and ran the length of the field for the game-tying score heading into the break. This drained the energy from a raucous Seth Grove Stadium crowd and gave momentum to KU going into the second half.
The third quarter was a defensive chess match, as both squads traded interceptions in the period.
The Golden Bears offense produced a strong drive at the beginning of the fourth quarter to reclaim the lead, 28–21. Following a pattern, the Red Raiders got the ball back and were on fire. Mussina got back on track and had two passes of 25 yards or more on the way to another game-tying score.
Redshirt-freshman tight end David Balint reeled in a 30-yard completion before Mussina found redshirt-junior receiver Kyle Haines for a 29-yard touchdown.
The crowd at Seth Grove Stadium was heavily invested in the game from start to finish, and the fans were going full-force after the latest SU score.
With just more than nine minutes left in the game, it was coming down to crunch time for the Red Raiders. There would not be many more opportunities in the game, so KU’s next drive was a crucial one for the defense.
Despite its efforts, the Golden Bears marched down the field and made three consecutive scoring drives. The next drive was the most important of the game for the Red Raiders, and the offense kept up its form and drove downfield. The ball was eventually down at the KU 10 and Lominy was given the ball to try and get another game-tying touchdown.
As Lominy appeared to break the goal line, he fumbled the ball and it was recovered by the Golden Bears. The stadium erupted with confusion and anger, as it seemed like Lominy had already crossed the goal line and claimed the touchdown before the ball left his grip.
Regardless of the controversy, the call on the field was not changed and the turnover drained any chance of a comeback for SU. The KU offense made sure of that when it capitalized on the call and added another touchdown for security to make it 42–28 with just two minutes left.
Kutztown was ranked No. 15 in NCAA Division II coming into its matchup with the Red Raiders, and SU should be pleased with its overall performance, although the result was obviously not what the team had hoped.
With only three games left in the season, the Red Raiders play Lock Haven University away from home before taking on East Stroudsburg University and Indiana University of Pennsylvania to close out the season.
Sitting at 3–5 overall, SU is outside of the playoff picture, but the team will still look to finish strong and help its young players grow.