IUP FOOTBALL: Box aims to have Hawks' offense soaring
Not a day goes by when Mike Box doesn’t think about the final pass he threw in 2012.
“It haunts me,” said the IUP fifth-year senior quarterback.
With the clock ticking down and the Crimson Hawks trailing Winston-Salem State by four points in the NCAA Division II quarterfinals, Box had one last gasp, a pass on fourth down, to steal a win.
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Just as he spotted an open receiver in the end zone, Box was hit from behind by a Rams defender and the ball squirted up in the air and fell harmlessly to the turf. IUP’s season was over.
Nine months later, Box thinks about that pass every day, but not in the context you might expect. For him, it’s not about what went wrong on that final play, but what went wrong on some of the others before it that put the Crimson Hawks in the unenviable position of needing a last-second touchdown to win the game.
“We should never let a game get that close again,” Box said, admitting the wounds haven’t quite healed. “You should never leave it up to one single play. We trained for that, so that if it came down to that, we would be ready. But you never want to leave it down to one pass or one kick. You want to leave no doubt.”
That’s precisely why Box has worked so hard since last season ended to make sure the Crimson Hawks return to the national stage this season. The Crimson Hawks, who went 12-2 last year, are ranked No. 10 in the American Football Coaches Association preseason Top 25 national poll.
Last year, Box completed 52 percent (111 of 214) of his attempts for 1,747 yards and 13 touchdowns with only four interceptions.
He battled with incumbent starter Pat Smith for the job throughout preseason camp and the first few games of the year, and then he was named the starter after the fourth game.
Box held the spot the rest of the way, as Smith was relegated to a backup role, and the Crimson Hawks went 9-1 in games that Box was the starter.
“I thought Mike really finished the year well,” said IUP head coach Curt Cignetti, “and I think he took another step in the spring. I’m excited for him to get back and get going.”
Box said he began to feel comfortable in the starting roll as the season progressed.
“Every week,” he said, “I got more in tune with the receivers; the line got more in tune with the cadence. As a team we started to jell.”
Smith has since graduated, leaving only Box and three freshmen quarterbacks on the roster: Logan Weaver, Steve Franco and Eddie Stockett.
But being the unquestioned starter doesn’t mean Box hasn’t spent portions of preseason camp looking over his shoulder.
“Every day, I’m competing against myself and I’m competing against these young quarterbacks,” Box said. “Just because they’re young doesn’t mean that they can’t push me.”
Box expects to have a better season that last year, and Cignetti also thinks good things are ahead for the Collinsville, Ga., native who transferred to IUP from Connecticut in 2011.
Part of the reason Cignetti expects big things is that Box has steadily improved since he came to IUP.
Another reason is the cast of receivers that Box will be working with.
“He’s a senior, and we haven’t had that kind of luxury since I’ve been here,” Cignetti said. “But he ought to be surrounded by some pretty good weapons at wide receiver.”
Among the talented wide receivers that the Crimson Hawks will be counting on this fall is Terrill Barnes, another senior, who probably spends more time with Box than anyone else on the team. That’s because they’re roommates.
“I’m in his ear every night,” said Barnes, a Gettysburg native. “We watch film and we just point out the things we can do better and improve. I always tell him that I want the ball.”
Late last season, Barnes became Box’s favorite target (he had 20 catches for 349 yards and five touchdowns in the Crimson Hawks’ final four games), and his size and big-play ability makes him a tough matchup for most cornerbacks.
But the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Box said he won’t be sending the ball his roommate’s way just because they’re friends.
“I tell him all the time that ‘if you’re open, I will throw you the ball. But I’m not going to throw into double or triple coverage,’” Box said. “But he’s a freak, and I think he will see a lot of (double coverage) this season.”
But considering IUP’s style on offense of using a potent ground game to set up the pass, it’s unlikely opposing defenses will face many opportunities to double-cover Barnes because they’ll have to worry about running backs like De’Antwan Williams and Erik Finklea.
That sets up Box for a big year. The pressure won’t be on him to win games, just to do his job so the team can win.
An exciting time to be the IUP starting quarterback? Box thinks so.
“Oh it is, very much so,” he said with a smile. “I’m getting antsy.”