It might seem like a shot in the dark, but IUP head coach Curt Cignetti truly believes his team has a clear path toward a playoff berth.
Some strange things have to happen, and the Crimson Hawks winning their final three games is a necessity. But the third-year coach knows that football is a weird game, and stranger things have happened. That’s why you won’t see Cignetti waving the white flag any time soon.
“I have a pretty strong feeling that we’re going to make a strong run,” he said. “I really have a sense this team is going to make a strong move forward.”
That move forward begins Saturday when IUP visits Clarion, a team it has usually had little trouble with. Since Cignetti took over in 2011, the Crimson Hawks have beaten Clarion both times the teams met, by a combined score of 83-7.
IUP (6-2 overall, 3-2 PSAC West) is coming off an impressive 28-6 win at Mercyhurst last week, which followed a two-game slide where the Crimson Hawks got manhandled by Slippery Rock (42-16) and then inexplicably lost to Edinboro (36-30), their first home loss in two years.
Cignetti said he liked the way his team rebounded last week, and he thinks the bad days are in the past for this year’s team.
“Now,” Cignetti said, “the message is, ‘This is how we have to prepare every week.’ The focus was really good throughout the week and on game day. It was a good quality win against a team that’s tough to beat at home. … Every week is a little bit different. My job is to make sure they’re prepared and ready to go.”
The good news for IUP is that the team is about as healthy as it has been since the players arrived for preseason camp in August. The five players on the offensive line were back to their normal positions last week for the first time since the season opener, and guys like Bruce Atkins (hand), Salath Williams (foot) and Jay Watkins (groin) are nearing a return to the field after missing several games.
“We’re probably as healthy as we’ve been all year,” Cignetti said. “We’re closer to full strength as we’ve ever been.”
That might be a dose of bad news for the Golden Eagles, who have had their season go south after an injury of their own.
Ben Fiscus, an Indiana High School graduate and the reigning All-PSAC West first-team quarterback, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second game of the season and Clarion has had to turn the reins of the offense over to a freshman, Darrelle Carson.
“Yeah, he’s a freshman,” Cignetti said, “but for a freshman, I think he’s playing well.”
Without Fiscus, the Golden Eagles have gone through some growing pains that cost them some games. Clarion was a dark horse to win the division back in August, but those hopes have been dashed and Clarion is left facing the possibility of its 10th losing season in the past 11 years.
But that is of little concern to Cignetti and the Crimson Hawks. For them to get to the playoffs, they’ll need a dramatic climb in the Super Region One poll, and that can’t happen without a win on Saturday.
“We’re focused on getting it going,” Cignetti said “If we keep improving like we did Saturday, we’re a tough team to reckon with. … I still think there’s a shot. If we can improve, then are we one of the best teams in the region that can make a run? Yeah, we are. But we put ourselves in this hole. We’re just trying to dig out.”