Joe Slappy has undoubtedly grown up as the punch line to many jokes throughout his life, but the wide receiver had the last laugh at Farrell Stadium on Saturday in California’s 30-14 win over the Golden Rams. The loss likely cost the Golden Rams a first round bye in the playoffs, and could drop them as low as fourth in the NCAA II Regional Rankings.
Trailing 23-14 and with their backs against the wall, West Chester’s defense forced quarterback Joe Ruggiero and the Vulcan offense into a 4th and 16 at the West Chester 25. Normally this is the ideal situation for a defense, representing the chance to get off the field and send the offense out with momentum on their side.
Not this time.
Under heavy pressure, Ruggiero stepped up in the pocket and hit Slappy with a 21-yard completion to the West Chester four yard-line. Two plays later, it would be wide receiver Cory Garver hauling in a two-yard touchdown strike in the corner of the end zone.
“They had been blitzing us and were trying to run the clock at the same time. We picked up the blitz, Joey [Ruggiero] did a nice job of picking up the pressure, [Slappy] is a great receiver,” Cal head coach John Luckhardt said. “He made a nice play to come back to the ball and he caught it, so he did a pretty good job.”
Slappy’s timely catch on fourth down was one of several plays made by the Cal offense on third and fourth downs throughout the game. Cal managed to keep West Chester’s defense on the field while their vaunted No.1 ranked defense rested on the sidelines. In all, West Chester’s defense managed to convert on just one of three fourth downs, but eight of 14 third down opportunities. However, Cal converted two of two on third downs of five yards or less.
“Third downs are critical,” junior defensive back Tyler Downes said. “We’ve got to get off the field in three downs. If we can get off the field in three downs then it puts our offense back on the field, and it gives our defense time to rest a little bit, but we just stayed on the field too long and it wore us down a little bit.”
Offensively, West Chester did not fare much better. Bill Zwaan Jr. had the type of game that will haunt him for years to come. Osagie Osunde was so ineffective that he was a non-factor in the game and Mike Washington had two more catches than a fan sitting in the front row.
Zwaan Jr., who faced heavy pressure from the Vulcan’s swarming defense all game long, was vastly ineffective, reverting back to forcing the ball into double and at times triple coverage trying to get to his security blanket, Washington. The results were not pretty, as the senior amassed 161 yards on 14 of 33 passing and three interceptions to boot in his final regular season game at Farrell Stadium.
“[Cal is] a very, very good football team,” Head Coach Bill Zwaan said. “They’re a very efficient football team, they don’t make mistakes and we did. You can’t afford to make any mistakes when they’re not going to make any mistakes and it cost us.”
To add injury to insult, litterally, Zwaan Jr. suffered a sprained MCL on the game’s final drive and is listed as questionable in the team’s season finale Saturday at Cheyney.
Osunde, playing through a quad injury was held to just 18 yards rushing on seven carries. The halfback failed to convert on a pivotal fourth and one opportunity on the Cal 41-yard line at the start of the second quarter, when he was tripped up trying to cut into the hole off left guard.
The play call on fourth and one has worked for West Chester in the past this season, but in what seemed to be the trend Saturday, California simply had the answer for how to shut it down.
“We had it, and Osagie got bumped down by the backside guard and got knocked down, but we had it for a first down,” Zwaan, said. “It was wide open, Osagie could have picked up 15 yards, but he just got bumped into, it was the right play, its our play, we just got knocked down on that one, and again that’s a mistake that costs us in a game like this.”
While West Chester struggled in many facets of the game, California continued to prove that they are deserving of being ranked in the top spot in the Northeast Region.
The Vulcan’s top rusher, Brandon Lombardy, sat out this game with a torn ACL and will miss the remainder of the season. In his absence, Cal’s rushing offense did not skip a beat.
Filling in for Lombardy was Daine Williams who received a lions share of the ground work, toting the ball 25 times for 132 yards and a touchdown. Freddie Bacco also contributed 45 yards in the win.
Ruggiero emerged as Luckhardt’s best kept secret, though no longer. The quarterback passed for 134 yards and two touchdowns on 15-25 passing.
The loss drops West Chester to 8-2 overall, and 1-1 in games broadcast on television, as Saturday’s game was seen worldwide on CSTV.
Next up for the Golden Rams is a season culminating affair with crosstown whipping post, Cheyney. Kickoff is slated for 1p.m. at Cheyney’s Stevenson Stadium. The game represents WCU’s last opportunity to impress NCAA pollsters enough to slot the Golden Rams in the top four, thus securing at least one home playoff game at Farrell Stadium. Saturday’s mathcup can be heard live and exclusively on 91.7 FM WCUR and worldwide online at www.wcur.fm.
Matt Lombardo is the sports editor of The Quad, and a third-year student majoring in communication studies with a minor in journalism. He can be reached at ML606516@wcupa.edu