After three games, Curt Cignetti knew what he had talent-wise, but he wasn’t sure about the intangibles his IUP Crimson Hawks possessed.
He found out Saturday, and he’s breathing a lot easier because of it.
Facing their stiffest test of the young season, the Crimson Hawks (4-0 overall, 2-0 PSAC West) left little doubt that the preseason hoopla might be justified by whipping previously unbeaten California, 20-7, on a sunny Saturday afternoon at Miller Stadium, in the fifth annual Coal Bowl.
The win snapped the Vulcans’ six-game win streak in the series, and it marks the first time the Coal Miners Pail Trophy is in the Crimson Hawks’ possession since the rivalry game was started in 2009.
“We were going to find out a lot about our football team today,” said Cignetti, who raised his record at IUP to 23-5. “Our team really came together today as a team. You could see it on the field and in the celebration in the locker room afterwards. It was a great win for the program. We found out a lot about ourselves today.”
Here’s what Cignetti learned:
• He has an offense that has the ability to both milk the clock and score quickly. IUP rushed for 199 yards against a defense that entered the game allowing only 60.7 yards per game on the ground, held the ball for almost 37 minutes, and used some big plays in the passing game to stretch the Vulcans’ defense.
• He has a defense that could be, at least in terms of potential, better than last year’s, which was the best in the nation among all NCAA Division II schools. On Saturday, IUP intercepted five passes, allowed only 230 total yards and held an opponent scoreless for the third straight week (California’s lone touchdown came from its defense, on an interception return).
• He has a team made up of guys who seem to be able to rise to the occasion when needed. There has been a different challenge each week this season, and the Crimson Hawks have passed those tests each time. Plus, the Crimson Hawks gained a measure of revenge for last year’s painful 26-24 loss to California.
“I don’t know if we proved a point,” said guard Nick Carnicella. “I know we just went out there and got better today. We did what we were asked to do. The defense came up huge, man, with five turnovers, and everything just went our way.”
It was a win that will probably carry a lot of weight throughout the season. In the first three games, all wins by a combined score of 105-20, the Crimson Hawks faced only self-created adversity, and they rarely got tested by the opposition. So facing a tough team and coming away with a convincing win was huge.
“They were ready to play,” Cignetti said. “They showed something today. They showed what we can be. But this win is going to help us a lot.”
It wasn’t an easy win, though.
The Crimson Hawks took the early lead, when De’Antwan “Rocket” Williams recovered his own fumble in the end zone for a touchdown midway through the first quarter. From there, the story was the IUP defense, which frustrated the Vulcans all afternoon, especially defensive back Terrell Holloway, who snared three first-half interceptions, two of which came in the end zone.
California (3-1, 1-1) never got much going on offense, and coach Mike Kellar eventually pulled his starting quarterback, Cody Schroeder, in favor of another sophomore, James Harris. The change didn’t matter, though, as Harris threw two interceptions, to IUP’s Marco Pecora and Eric Williams, and the Crimson Hawks held the Vulcans to their lowest output of the season.
“We were just trying to create a spark there,” Kellar said of the quarterback change. “But turnovers will kill you, especially in the red zone.”
The Crimson Hawks upped their lead to 14-0 early in the third quarter when quarterback Mike Box capped a quick five-play, 75-yard drive with a 35-yard touchdown pass to Terrill Barnes.
After forcing a quick punt, IUP took over again and drove down the field for another long possession, but the Vulcans’ Dewey McDonald intercepted a Box pass and ran it back 80 yards for a touchdown that cut the comfortable IUP lead in half.
The problem for the Vulcans, though, was that their defense had just been on the field for 11 plays, and it would have to go back out for more. The Crimson Hawks continued to pound away at the California defense, and De’Antwan Williams, who rushed for a game-high 167 yards on 38 carries, eventually broke through for a 9-yard touchdown run that made it 20-7 with 4:18 left to play.
And then the celebration really started. The Vulcans had a few opportunities to do something at the end, but the IUP defense held strong, and the Crimson Hawks erased the memories of six straight losses to California.
“It means a lot to me,” said Holloway, one of the many seniors on the team who had been 0-3 vs. California. “It means so much. If you ask me, we’ve physically won all three games against these guys, but they always figured a way to pull it out.”
“Just to get the monkey off our back, definitely, it feels good,” said De’Antwan Williams, who was chosen as the Coal Bowl MVP. “You never want to lose to a team — I don’t know how many years in a row — you don’t want that. But as far as the season goes, it’s just another win.”
After the game ended, the Crimson Hawks were awarded the Coal Miners Pail Trophy for the first time ever, and the team celebrated with cheers and hugs. But the mood seemed a bit calm, mainly because, as Cignetti explained, the Crimson Hawks have higher aspirations than just winning a rivalry game.
And now that he knows what kind of team he has, Cignetti feels pretty good about the future.
“I’m not into making predictions,” he said, “but we’ve put ourselves in really good position right now to keep improving as a football team.”