For four quarters on Sunday, The Shippensburg University football team battled punch-for-punch with one of the best teams in the nation.
But, injuries and missed opportunities eventually became too much to overcome as the Red Raiders (1-4, 1-1 PSAC) fell to No. 14 West Chester University, 29-21, at Seth Grove Stadium.
“That’s all we ask from them all week as coaches; to play with heart and play with passion,” Shippensburg head coach Mark Maciejewski said. “And they did that today. So I’m really proud of them for that. Every single one of them, from the sidelines to the guys on the field.”
Despite finding themselves in a quick 10-0 hole midway through the first quarter, the Red Raiders rallied back with two rushing scores from graduate student Luke Durkin to take a 14-10 lead.
West Chester (5-0, 2-0) leapt back in front with a rushing touchdown early in the second quarter, and that score would remain until late in the third quarter when Durkin added his third score of the game.
The Golden Rams reclaimed a 22-21 advantage with under two minutes to play in the third before a defensive stalemate ensued in the fourth quarter. The teams traded punts for nearly the entirety of the quarter, at one point punting on six consecutive combined possessions.
But West Chester finally broke through with 1:39 to play, taking a 29-21 lead. Shippensburg’s last-minute drive took it inside Golden Ram territory, but came to a screeching halt when redshirt sophomore Brycen Mussina’s “Hail Mary” attempt was swatted away in the end zone as time expired.
“Our guys believed the whole way through, up until the final whistle blew,” Maciejewski said.
The SU defense continued to trend in the right direction, forcing five turnovers and making a sequence of enormous stops in the fourth quarter.
“This has got to be a confidence builder for the defense, and we need that,” Maciejewski said. “They put us in some really good positions to do some things on offense.
Unfortunately for the Red Raiders, they were not able to put those turnovers to good use. They scored off just two of those five turnovers. The other three possessions resulted in two punts and a missed field goal.
Individually, a number of Red Raiders notched landmark defensive performances. Redshirt senior Tig Spinelli finished with a career-high 13 tackles and one sack.
Redshirt freshman Tyler Simon had two takeaways alone, and directly contributed to another. He recovered a fumble, made a juggling, acrobatic interception and forced another fumble that was recovered by redshirt senior Deionte Wilson. Wilson, who is a former West Chester Golden Ram, made a leaping interception in the third quarter as well.
Offensively, the Red Raiders struggled to move the chains for most of the day. Matters were made worse when Durkin and Mussina each missed most of the fourth quarter due to injury.
Durkin racked up the three rushing scores, but rushed for fewer than four yards per carry in a game where running room was hard to find.
Mussina completed 16 of 37 passes for 154 yards as the Golden Ram defense largely bottled up the Red Raiders’ aerial assault.
“Listen, he missed some reads early on. We gotta clean that up,” Maciejewski said. “We left a lot out there on that field offensively.”
Redshirt sophomore Sean Judge led SU in receiving, hauling in three receptions for 61 yards. Redshirt junior Winston Eubanks, one of the premier receiving threats in the conference, faced double-coverage most of the afternoon and was held to just three catches for 20 yards.
The Red Raiders are set to hit the road again this weekend to clash with Shepherd University at noon from Ram Stadium. It will certainly be a challenging task, but Maciejewski thinks this team is learning what it is.
“We’re figuring out that if we fight, we’re pretty good,” Maciejewski said. “If we play with passion, we have a chance to be successful.”