It would be easy to worry about the IUP Crimson Hawks being distracted come Saturday.
When Millersville comes to town for a PSAC crossover game, it will be IUP’s homecoming; a few dozen members of the 1993 IUP team that came within a breath of the national championship will be on hand; and the football field itself will be officially named in honor of former coach Frank Cignetti.
Plus, and maybe the biggest potential distraction of them all, the Crimson Hawks (4-0 overall, 2-0 PSAC West) are still soaring after their emotional win against rival California last week in the annual Coal Bowl.
But third-year head coach Curt Cignetti isn’t worried about whether his team will show up come kickoff time.
“I’m looking for this game to be something to build on so we can take the steps we need to take as a team,” he said.
The road ahead gets much more difficult after this game. There are contests against three teams currently with 3-1 records left on the schedule: Slippery Rock (Oct. 12), Clarion (Nov. 2) and Gannon (Nov. 9), plus tough games against Edinboro (Oct. 19) and Mercyhurst (Oct. 26), and maybe a berth in the PSAC championship on Nov. 16.
It starts with Slippery Rock next week, and Cignetti is well aware of how much of a tough matchup that will be. But he also knows that unless the Crimson Hawks don’t play well against hapless Millersville, there will be even more work to do against Slippery Rock.
“We’ve got a huge game next week on the road,” he said. “Everybody is aware of that. But we want to play good on homecoming first.”
That means getting past the mental challenge of playing a team that is struggling at just about every facet of the game. It’s the same test IUP passed against lowly Cheyney on Sept. 14 (49-0) but struggled to get through against Seton Hill (26-0) two weeks ago.
The Marauders will come to town with a team that has been outscored by an average of 39 points per game and hasn’t been very competitive in its first four games under new head coach Greg Breitbach.
Statistically speaking, the Marauders are near the bottom of the national rankings in several categories including: scoring offense, 160th (out of 162 teams); rushing offense, 159th; total offense and pass efficiency defense, 158th; scoring defense, 154th; and total defense and rushing defense, 150th.
Millersville’s defense is dead last in the country in stopping teams on third-down conversions, allowing them 58 percent of the time.
Those numbers don’t point to a classic matchup against IUP, which has the top-ranked defense in the country, as well as an offense capable of scoring bunches of points while also controlling the clock.
“They’re struggling a little bit,” Cignetti said. “They’re playing hard and they’re well-coached. But they’ve struggled to be competitive.”
But Cignetti said he thinks his team will be up for the task of doing its job against a team that probably won’t be much of a test.
“I think mature teams handle these kind of challenges well,” he said.
As for the distractions, Cignetti hopes all the off-field hoopla contributes to a great day for the IUP fans. There should be a decent crowd for homecoming, and the festivities to honor the program’s past are a nice thing for the current players to see.
But what would make it a great day for Cignetti would be a game his team plays well and comes away from with another win in hand.
“It’s homecoming,” he said. “We’ll have a lot of people back for the game. We want to put on a show.”