CALIFORNIA – Maybe California University’s football team has found the secret to a successful season.
No, that has been a strength all season.
Not close, as the quarterback position is still evolving after Cody Schroeder was replaced by James Harris in Week 4.
It’s the running game, which has been struggling all season until Saturday afternoon’s 35-7 rout of Gannon in a PSAC West Division game at Adamson Stadium.
The win moves Cal’s conference record to 4-1 and sets up a first-place showdown next week at Slippery Rock, also 4-1. Gannon, which defeated Slippery Rock, 38-27, a month ago, fell to 3-2 in the conference and 4-4 overall.
Jeff Knox, a junior who transferred from Pitt two years ago, had his first 100-yard game this season for the Vulcans (6-2), gaining 102 on 19 carries and sparking a running attack that produced a season-high 252 yards.
“I didn’t even keep track of that,” said Knox, whose two short scoring runs in the second half put the finishing touches against a weary Gannon defense. “I just try to do my job, and try to be the man in front.”
Knox is in a rotation that includes Ringgold’s Derrick Fiore and Nick Grissom, a freshman. Grissom gained a season-high 81 yards on 11 carries and Fiore added 56 on 13 tries.
“It’s not like we were trying to hold them back from the first week of the season,” joked Cal head coach Mike Kellar. “We made a commitment to run the football, Last year, Jeff and Derrick were defensive backs and Grissom probably didn’t know where California was (on the map). We stayed committed to it, and it’s paying dividends.”
Harris, a transfer from Wake Forest, where he played three seasons on the baseball team, also had to be a little unfamiliar with Cal. He is slowly settling in at quarterback. Against Gannon, he completed 16 of 26 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns. He threw a bad interception to cornerback Qwaheem Marshall at the Gannon 1-yard line in the third quarter, but Cal was holding a 28-7 lead.
“I’m not where I want to be right now,” said Harris, who has sophomore eligibility in football, “but I’m getting there.”
Harris accounted for the Vulcans’ first two scores when he hit tight end Ryan McCauley with a five-yard pass five minutes into the second quarter and found Nadir Brown on a beautiful 31-yard score eight seconds before halftime. Harris threw only seven passes in the second half as Kellar turned to the running game.
“We know their strengths and weaknesses,” said Kellar of his running back trio. “The biggest thing is the egos. Who is getting the most carries, who’s getting the most yards. But it’s team-first with these guys. As long as we manage that, we’ll be OK.”
Cal’s defense held quarterback Liam Nadler to 174 yards passing on 18 completions of 41 attempts. The secondary picked Nadler off twice, the most effective coming with 10:25 to play. Townes got in front of the receiver, then returned the interception 71 yards to the Gannon 29.
“The pressure up front was good, and that made the quarterback throw early,” said Townes, who had eight tackles. “It gave me a chance to get a good break on the ball.”
Noah Taylor, a nose tackle who is the younger brother of former NFL star Jason Taylor, had a game-high nine tackles. Cornerback Aaron Terry had seven tackles and an interception. The Vulcans held Gannon to 259 total yards and just 85 on the ground.
“We hit a rough patch earlier in the season,” Taylor said of losses to IUP and West Chester. “We’re getting the ball rolling again and heading in the right direction.”
Quad Law, who was a teammate of Fiore’s at Ringgold, had a strong game for Gannon, catching a game-high seven passes for 59 yards and turning nine returns into 105 yards. He finished with 193 all-purpose yards.
“It felt good being in front of my family and friends, who came out to support me,” said Law, the Observer-Reporter’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2011. “So it hurt and was a little embarrassing (to lose).”
Mike Williams led Cal with six catches for 85 yards. … Terry also had two pass breakups. … Linebacker Luke Rankie had a game-high 12 tackles for Gannon. … Cal finishes the season with games at Slippery Rock, at home with Mercyhurst and a possible PSAC crossover game against Millersville.