For all of IUP’s success over the years on the football field, the Crimson Hawks have never really been considered a passing team.
Maybe now they should be.
After four games, IUP is having success in the air this season like it has never had before, and that’s a big reason why the Crimson Hawks have been blowing out their opponents by an average of 40 points per game.
The numbers are eye-popping: Quarterbacks Quinton Maxwell and Jalen Reese have combined to complete 77 percent of their passes (65 of 84) for 1,112 yards and 16 touchdowns with only three interceptions — and all of those came in the first game of the year. The IUP offense has totaled more than 300 passing yards in each of the past three games, a feat never before accomplished in the program’s past 30 years, if not longer.
But if you were to ask coach Paul Tortorella if he’s surprised that his team has been able to throw the ball so well, his answer might be surprising.
“You know, not really, as crazy as that sounds, because of our personnel,” he said.
“We have (wide receivers) Dom (McNeil) and JoJo (Gause) and (tight end) Grant Smith back from last year. Duane Brown was our best wideout this spring. We knew we had depth with (wide receivers Dwine) Walls and (Qashah) Carter and (Zac) Kelly, and (Jacob) Watts has become a really good receiver at tight end. Our backs are all heavily involved in our passing game, and then we have two drop-back quarterbacks now.”
The latest example of IUP’s sudden air dominance came Saturday at Mercyhurst. Maxwell, who transferred to IUP from Ohio University, completed 19 of his 29 attempts for 324 yards and four touchdowns as the Crimson Hawks crushed Mercyhurst, 56-24. His main target was sophomore Duane Brown, who caught seven passes for 153 yards and three touchdowns.
When told of his own numbers after the game, Maxwell shrugged and suggested he could have played better.
“I played OK,” he said with a straight face. “I’m going to watch the film, see what I have to improve on and improve on it.”
Tortorella said he and his staff worked for about three months to recruit Maxwell, and when the process started in January, he thought it would be a long shot to land the former Division I quarterback.
“When we were recruiting (him), I envisioned this if we were going to get him, if we were lucky enough to get him,” Tortorella said. “When we watched his video, in the back of my mind I was saying to myself, There’s no way we’re going to get this guy. That’s how impressed we were with the film. So, it’s not been a surprise to us what he has done here.”
Saturday was the first game since the season opener Sept. 7 that Maxwell played beyond halftime. In a 54-0 win at Millersville on Sept. 14 and 77-14 thrashing of Lock Haven last week, he put up sparkling numbers in the first half as IUP took big leads, and then Reese came in and continued the aerial attack.
Reese, a transfer from Toledo, completed 20 of 24 attempts for 340 yards and six touchdowns in his four combined quarters of play.
The Crimson Hawks (4-0), who play host to California (3-1) on Saturday in the annual homecoming game, are second in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference in scoring offense (52.8 points per game) and passing efficiency (224.0) and third in passing offense (318.8 yards per game). Slippery Rock, which IUP visits on Oct. 12, leads the league in all three statistical categories.
IUP’s reliance on the passing game — particularly downfield throws — is quite a change from what the Crimson Hawks have traditionally done. They’ve usually been a run-first team that uses short passes and high-percentage throws to keep defenses from stacking the box to stop the run. Heck, it took them six games last season to reach the 1,275 passing yards IUP has already thrown for this season.
But this year, the Crimson Hawks are using the pass to set up the run. In their last game, the Crimson Hawks wore down the Mercyhurst defense with the pass, and then tailbacks Justice Evans (57 yards) and Malik Anderson (24) had long scoring runs against the tired Lakers.
Tortorella said it wouldn’t be smart to use the same philosophy every year, no matter who is on the roster. The past four years, IUP relied on the legs of quarterback Lenny Williams, but now they’re riding Maxwell’s arm.
“The one thing we always try to do here is match up (the offense) with what we have talent-wise,” he said. “If you’ve got a dual threat quarterback, you’ve got to run an offense that caters to that. If you got more of a passing quarterback, you have to do that.”
But as the weather turns colder and opposing teams work to slow down the IUP passing attack, the Crimson Hawks’ ground game could get on a roll, which would make things really interesting. Thus far, IUP’s top three running backs — Samir Bullock, Evans and Anderson — have stayed healthy and been limited in their touches to preserve them for later.
“We’ve split (carries) between (Bullock and Evans),” Tortorella said. “That’s about an average of eight carries a game for both of them. So those tires got a lot of tread on them. And then you throw in Malik Anderson, who’s averaging about 10 yards every time he touches the ball, you’ve got a spare tire, so to speak. We want to lighten their load cause it’s a long season.”
But considering how well the Crimson Hawks have been throwing the ball, it will take a lot to slow down the IUP offense one way or another.
“Honestly,” Brown said, “for us as an offense, I feel that nobody can match up with us, especially when we’re playing at a high level.”