IUP FOOTBALL: Hawks face major test in playoff opener
This isn't the time for distractions, Curt Cignetti warns.
The second-year IUP coach doesn't want his Crimson Hawks to think about the next round of the NCAA Division II playoffs, the all-conference teams or anything else.
There's one, singular, focus: The Shepherd Rams.
The Crimson Hawks open the playoffs Saturday at home against Shepherd, the champion of the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Should IUP win, it will visit undefeated New Haven next Saturday in the second round.
Just don't try to get Cignetti to talk about that, or any potential game down the road.
The focus is on the Rams, and that's where it will stay until the clock reaches zero on Saturday.
"That's where we are," Cignetti said. "We're preparing, practicing for the opportunity to play again."
One could argue it would be easy for the Crimson Hawks to be interested in other things. A week ago, they were clinging to their playoff lives. Then, after upsetting the region's top-seeded team in the PSAC State Game by 31 points, the Crimson Hawks are suddenly contenders to not only win the region, but maybe make that trip to Florence, Ala., for the national championship.
Easy as it might be to look ahead, the Crimson Hawks are not doing it.
"We've got to build on this and grow," Cignetti said. "We're playing for the right to play again. Or we can live in the past and die, and be done as a football team."
The Rams will be a test, for sure. They boast a defense that Cignetti said is the best IUP has faced all season, but it also has the statistics to look almost unbeatable. The big number is this: 376. That's how many rushing yards Shepherd has allowed all season.
That's 12 fewer yards than IUP gained in one game this year, a 33-16 win over Slippery Rock on Oct. 6.
"Their run defense speaks for itself," Cignetti said. "We haven't played a team that's got athletes like this."
But Shepherd coach Monte Cater, who coached teams that beat IUP twice before in the playoffs (9-6 in 1998 and 41-34 in 2007), said his team's defense is good, but maybe not as good as the statistics would make you believe. That's because in the WVIAC, most teams run some variance of the shotgun-spread offense, which uses quick passes to generate the kind of yardage off-tackle runs pick up in more traditional offenses.
Cater points to the fact the Rams have faced fewer rushing attempts (267) than any other team in NCAA Division II as one of the reasons why his defense has allowed so few yards.
"We've played the run well," Cater said. "But part of it that makes it look glaring is that there are a lot of teams we play just decide to throw against us. They don't run."
Another factor that contributes to the low rushing total against Shepherd is that the Rams have sacked opposing quarterbacks 31 times, the eighth-highest total in the nation. Those 31 sacks have subtracted 213 yards from the Rams' opponents' rushing totals.
Protecting quarterback Mike Box will be a priority for the IUP offensive line, which has given up just six sacks all season.
The offensive line will also try to get the ground game going enough to open up the passing attack. Last week, the Crimson Hawks did that in the State Game against Shippensburg despite the absence of senior tailback Harvie Tuck. This week, Cignetti said he hopes Tuck (sprained ankle) can play, which would give IUP more depth, to back up De'Antwan Williams, who rushed for 129 yards last week.
Depth is an issue this time of the season because playoff teams are permitted to only dress 52 players for the game. So if Tuck isn't ready, or wide receiver Pat Brewer (high ankle sprain) for that matter, they'll have to be deactivated all together.
Cater said he and the Rams will respect whoever dresses for the Crimson Hawks. He has a young team that hasn't been tested like this yet.
"We're going to have to play really, really well," he said. "It's going to be a challenge."
It will also be a challenge for the Crimson Hawks, who are trying to stay focused on the task at hand.
"We're getting ready," Cignetti said, "to play a beast of a team."