IUP FOOTBALL: HAWKS 30, S. CONNECTICUT STATE 20
NEW HAVEN, Conn. — It wasn’t a championship-caliber effort by any means, but the IUP Crimson Hawks limped away from their season opener feeling as if they accomplished a lot.
IUP, the No. 10 team in the American Football Coaches Association preseason Top 25, rolled up 500 yards of offense, scored touchdowns at opportune times, made a few critical stops on defense and survived a tougher-than-expected battle with Southern Connecticut State to the tune of a 30-20 win on Saturday at Jess Dow Field.
It was the Crimson Hawks’ eighth win in as many games in the series between the non-conference foes.
“We persevered through some unbelievable circumstances to win the game,” said third-year head coach Curt Cignetti, who won for the 20th time in his 25 games as the program’s coach.
Injuries changed the momentum of the game for IUP, as center Matt Sasson (hand) and linebacker Alexander Berdahl (hand/thumb) suffered injuries that Cignetti said could force them to miss a lot of playing time.
Those injuries also forced the Crimson Hawks to shuffle the lineup a bit and it put some players in unfamiliar spots.
“Fortunately,” Cignetti said, “we regrouped and came out of here with a victory over a very good Southern Connecticut football team.”
Last season, IUP clobbered the Owls, 33-6, in the season opener. The rematch wasn’t as one-sided, as Southern Connecticut seemed to have an answer every time the Crimson Hawks tried to pull away. The score was knotted at 14 apiece at halftime, and IUP didn’t seal the win until freshman Israel Green scored a touchdown with 4:46 left to play in the fourth quarter.
“We came out and faced some adversity and we came through it together,” said safety Marco Pecora, who had two key interceptions in his first game with IUP since transferring from Pitt. “They threw some punches but we responded as a team and got a tough ‘W’ on the road.”
The Owls, who are coming off their first losing season in 11 years, seemed unfazed by IUP’s reputation and the previous results in the series. They came out and ran the ball effectively and did a decent job against a star-studded IUP offense that has the capability to do much more than it did Saturday.
“We made some mistakes but we got back on the horse and weathered the storm,” said quarterback Mike Box, who threw for a career-high 296 yards. “I think we learned a lot today about our football team and I feel very confident about moving forward.”
The day started off on a good note when the team learned about four hours before kickoff that the NCAA had granted running back De’Antwan “Rocket” Williams another year of eligibility, ending a drama that had dragged on longer than the coaching staff wanted it to.
And then the game got off to a great start when Erik Finklea, a transfer from Miami (Ohio), spelled Williams on IUP’s first possession of the game and broke off a 45-yard touchdown run on his first carry to put IUP up 7-0.
From there, though, it was a back-and-forth battle. Each score was answered by the other team, and the Crimson Hawks held an uncomfortable 20-14 lead entering the fourth quarter.
But in the critical final 15 minutes, IUP took over and outscored Southern Connecticut 10-6, thanks to two key plays by transfers from Pitt.
First, wide receiver Drew Carswell made a stunning one-handed catch on fourth-and-2 for a 32-yard gain that set up Green’s 2-yard touchdown run. Carswell leaped over the Owls defender to haul in a pinpoint pass that quieted the home crowd.
“When a player is in the zone, you’ve got to ride it,” Box said. “(Carswell) didn’t let me down. He didn’t let the team down. He made a Top 10 play. Send it in to ‘SportsCenter.’”
Then, Pecora, who intercepted a pass from the Owls’ Jacob Jablonski in the first quarter, snared a second one with 1:41 left to play at the 5-yard line, effectively ending the Owls’ slim hopes of a comeback.
It was plays like those that Cignetti was happy about.
“I just wasn’t pleased with any facet of our game today except our ability in the second half to overcome and persevere,” he said.
Nonetheless, there were plenty of singular performances that stood out. Box had one of his best days by completing 18 of 32 passes for 296 yards and two touchdowns, a 9-yarder to Sean McVay in the second quarter and a 6-yard scoring strike to Carswell in the third.
His main target, though, was Terrill Barnes, who snared a game-high eight passes for 162 yards, including a 56-yarder in the second half that helped keep the Owls’ defense honest.
“He’s nothing less than a monster,” Box said. “We need to get the ball in his hands, and today I thought he was going to break a few of those. He’s a grown man out there. But he’s not all we’ve got. … You cannot just spotlight one guy like that. We have too many weapons.”
“We’ve got some new guys who are still learning the program,” he said, “but I think our offense showed today what we’re capable of.”
Williams finished the day with 135 yards on 18 carries, but those numbers were skewed a bit because his final run of the day went for 66 yards against a tired Southern Connecticut defense in the game’s final minute. Williams struggled at times, but Cignetti was thrilled just to have the senior back in the lineup after waiting about six weeks to hear back from the NCAA.
“It was a pleasant surprise this morning,” Cignetti said.
Barnes said the team got a lift when it was told Williams was eligible to play.
“Everyone was excited because we know how much he loves to play and how much he means to our offense,” Barnes said. “It makes it easier on everyone to have him back.”
On defense, linebacker Carl Fleming had a team-high 15 tackles, and cornerback Jerrell McFadden had an interception. But the Crimson Hawks gave up an uncharacteristic 142 rushing yards and at times looked nothing like the unit that led the nation in total defense last year.
“But we’ll get back on the practice field and get it corrected,” Pecora said. “I know that.”
That was the sentiment from Cignetti and his players after the win: It wasn’t pretty, but it was good enough. And the good news is that there is a long road ahead and it’s loaded with opportunities to get better.
“It’s not about the start,” Box said, “it’s about the finish.”
NOTES: Cignetti said Berdahl is likely to have surgery Monday and could be lost for the season. Dorian Lane replaced Berdahl in the fourth quarter. … If Sasson cannot play because of his injury, either Mike Charmo or Nick Carnicella will start at center. Carnicella did not play Saturday because he was suspended one game by the NCAA for being ejected from IUP’s final game last season, against Winston-Salem State. … Because of injuries to safeties Eric Williams, Kole Kraut and Chris Brown, cornerback James Griffin drew the start at strong safety. … Cignetti said he had no qualms about letting kicker Brett Ullman try a 48-yard field goal in the fourth quarter after Ullman had missed a 41-yarder in the third quarter. “I gave him a chance to redeem himself and he took it and he made the kick.”