As far as first steps go, Saturday was a pretty good one for the IUP offense.
In their 30-20 season-opening win at Southern Connecticut State, the Crimson Hawks rolled up 500 yards of offense and had the host Owls on their heels much of the afternoon with some big plays through the air and on the ground.
“You just have to go out there and make some plays,” said quarterback Mike Box, who passed for 296 yards and two touchdowns. “But at the end of the day, it’s organized chaos. That’s all it is.”
In earning a hard-fought road win, the No. 10 Crimson Hawks (1-0) had their second-most productive day of the three-year Curt Cignetti era, with the 552-yard output against Millersville last season being the only game in the past three seasons in which the IUP offense gained more yardage.
IUP rushed for 204 yards against Southern Connecticut State, marking the 17th time in the 25 games Cignetti has coached that the Crimson Hawks rushed for at least 200 yards.
Also, the 296 passing yards is the 12th-highest single-game total for an IUP offense since 2000.
But the sentiment afterward was that nobody in the locker room felt like the IUP offense had come close to reaching its potential.
“At the end of the day, a win is a win,” said senior wide receiver Terrill Barnes, who had eight catches for 162 yards.
“But we’ve got a lot of things to improve upon. … We’ve got some new guys who are still learning the program, but I think our offense showed today what we’re capable of.”
What’s maybe most impressive about IUP’s offensive production was that it came with a makeshift offensive line that was a chaotic work in progress.
First, starting left guard Nick Carnicella did not play because of a one-game suspension he had to serve for being ejected from IUP’s final game last season.
Then, center Matt Sasson suffered a hand injury in the first half that forced him to miss some time, and the line ended up with right guard Mike Charmo moving to center and tackles Byron Dovales, Jorge Vicioso and Bruce Atkins, plus freshman guard Tony Morgante, rotating through the guard slots. Sasson’s status for this week’s game, the home opener against Cheyney (4 p.m. kickoff), is uncertain, and Cignetti said either Charmo or Carnicella would draw the start if Sasson cannot play.
But with the skill players the Crimson Hawks boast, having a fluid offensive line might not be as big a deal as it sounds.
The Crimson Hawks got the good news a few hours before kickoff that running back De’Antwan “Rocket” Williams had been cleared to play by the NCAA, and he rushed for 135 yards, including a 66-yarder in the fourth quarter. His backup, Erik Finklea, contributed a 45-yard touchdown run on his first carry of the game, and true freshman Israel Green followed fullback Dom Maggio into the end zone for a touchdown with 4:46 left to play that sealed the win.
In the air, Box passed for a career-high 296 yards on 18-for-32 passing, and he tossed touchdown passes of 9 and 6 yards to Sean McVay and Drew Carswell. Barnes, a big-play specialist, had a breakout day, and looks to continue his dramatic climb toward becoming one of the top receivers in all of NCAA Division II.
All of that has Box excited to be the leader of an offense that boasts talent at every position.
“We’ve got the Rocket back,” Box said. “We have a good offensive line that is starting to jell. Maggio is an animal in the backfield clearing out holes. And we are loaded at receiver and tight end. You cannot spotlight one guy because if you do that and then man-up on the rest, well, I take that as disrespect.”
And the scary part for the Crimson Hawks’ opponents is that the IUP offense figures to only get better as the season progresses. The hope, Box said, is for the offense to be so productive that there isn’t much pressure on the defense, which was the best in the country last season.
“I have the utmost confidence in our defense,” he said. “If it comes down to it and we have to rely on them to win the game, I know they will come through. But the thing is this: I don’t want to. We should dominate all three phases out there, offense, defense and special teams. That’s what we strive for. I think we can complement each other rather than have it one-sided.”