If there’s any doubt about the IUP defense, it was probably erased Saturday afternoon.
Just like the Crimson Hawks’ recent struggles against California.
In a decisive 20-7 win at Miller Stadium, the Crimson Hawks allowed just 230 yards to a California offense that was averaging 351.7 per game. The IUP defense picked off five passes and broke up four others. And most importantly, it didn’t allow a single point –— for the third straight week.
And according to longtime defensive coordinator Paul Tortorella, that’s really all that matters.
“Obviously, the most important thing is the ‘W,’ and afterwards the only stat we look at is how many points we give up,” Tortorella said after the win, which was IUP’s first over California since 2006. “The past three weeks, we’ve gotten some breaks, some fortunate things. But I think the kids have done a great job of playing defense.”
Against the normally potent Vulcans, the Crimson Hawks didn’t give up ground and held California without an offensive touchdown for the first time in two years. California’s lone score came off an interception return in the third quarter. The win followed shutouts of Cheyney (49-0) and Seton Hill (26-0) the previous two weeks.
But even if statistics don’t mean much to Tortorella, the numbers do reveal a lot about how good this IUP defense has been thus far:
• In the 16-team Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, the Crimson Hawks rank No. 1 in scoring defense (6.8 points per game allowed), total defense (221.8 yards per game allowed), pass defense (131.5 yards per game allowed), pass efficiency defense (76.4 passer rating), red zone defense (28.6 percent success rate) and interceptions (10). They are third in rushing defense (90.3 yards per game).
• Among 166 teams across all of NCAA Division II, the IUP defense is No. 1 in total defense, scoring defense and red zone defense; third in pass efficiency defense and interceptions; and fifth in pass defense.
On Saturday, the IUP defense gave up just 75 yards on the ground. That forced the Vulcans to throw, which played right into Tortorella’s hand.
“The big thing is we really stopped the run,” he said. “They came in here trying to run the ball, and we really kind of made them have to throw. When you know they have to throw, that’s a big advantage.”
Defensive back Terrell Holloway picked off three passes in the first half, forcing California coach Mike Kellar to pull his quarterback, Cody Schroeder, and replace him with James Harris, who was only slightly better, with two interceptions, to Marco Pecora and Eric Williams.
“We focused this week on finishing,” said Holloway, who was named the PSAC West Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts, “and not letting them into the end zone.”
California sniffed the end zone twice, and both times the Vulcans’ hopes were dashed by an interception. Otherwise, California mustered very little against the IUP defense, which is becoming a common theme this season.
“Our defense takes a lot of pride in the scoreboard saying zero on the other side,” said defensive end Shane Meisner, who leads the Crimson Hawks in tackles for loss (4.0) and is tied for the top spot in sacks (2.0).
Success on defense is nothing new for the Crimson Hawks. Last year, IUP had the top-ranked defense in several categories nationally, and Tortorella was named the footballscoop.com Division II Coordinator of the Year.
But there were some doubts about the IUP defense this year, mainly because Tortorella had to replace five starters from last year, and because of an injury in the season opener to top tackler Alexander Berdahl that seemed devastating at the time.
But newcomers such as linebacker Dorian Lane, safeties Pecora and Williams, cornerback Jeremiah McPhearson, defensive tackle Michael Larrow and defensive end Ali Muhammad have stepped in and made a huge impact.
Tortorella said last week’s win at Seton Hill was a turning point for the IUP defense. The offense struggled for a while to even move the ball, and so the Crimson Hawks’ defense shut down the Griffins’ offense until IUP’s could come around.
“I think last week, we really matured as a defense,” Tortorella said. “I think we gained some confidence as the game went on. And I’ve been around the game long enough to know that you can feel that from the players. It’s not cockiness. It’s a mature confidence. That’s where we are right now.”
And that leads to one question: How good can this defense get?
Holloway, a three-year starter at the “star” position, a hybrid linebacker-safety spot, doesn’t want to make any comparisons to last year’s defense, but he knows the possibility is there for this year’s unit to be outstanding.
“We’ve got some work to do,” he said, “but we can be a great defense.”