SLIPPERY ROCK — Whoever famously said that a great defense always trumps a great offense sure looked foolish on Saturday.
What was supposed to be a titanic matchup of IUP’s top-ranked defense and Slippery Rock’s high-scoring offense never materialized. Instead, host Slippery Rock did its thing — and then some — and the Crimson Hawks left town shaking their heads with a beating of epic proportions.
Quarterback Nigel Barksdale passed for 425 yards and two touchdowns and The Rock rolled up an astounding 676 yards of offense en route to a 42-16 win over No. 7 IUP in a PSAC West game that left both teams shocked and somewhat awed.
“I was very concerned about this game because we hadn’t been challenged on defense, and they have a great offense,” said head coach Curt Cignetti, who suffered the most lopsided loss of his three-year tenure at IUP. “They whipped us up front on both sides of the ball. … What else can I say, really?”
Longtime Slippery Rock coach George Mihalik was stunned when the final stats were read to him.
“Wow,” he said in disbelief. “We really had a great day.”
The 676 yards is the most ever allowed by an IUP defense, eclipsing the mark of 659, set by Texas A&M-Kingsville in 1994. The Rock’s 449 passing yards is also a single-game high for an IUP opponent.
“I’m just really disappointed,” said IUP linebacker Carl Fleming. “This is a wake-up call. We got out-executed today. We didn’t do enough throughout the week to prepare ourselves for today.”
Cignetti said he should be blamed for the poor showing.
“This is the first game since I have been here that I was embarrassed by our effort and toughness,” he said. “I take total responsibility.”
The matchup of IUP’s top-ranked defense against a Slippery Rock offense that was averaging more than 50 points a game intrigued Mihalik.
“I thought we had a great opportunity today to play the No. 7-ranked team in the country,” said Mihalik. “We couldn’t let it pass us by.”
All week long, the talk was about how Barksdale and Co. would have a tough time against an IUP defense that hadn’t allowed a touchdown in over a month and was giving up a paltry 213.4 yards per game.
But if Barksdale did struggle, it wasn’t obvious, and the senior quarterback amassed a career day against the Crimson Hawks, who allowed more than three times their season average in one afternoon. Barksdale attributed it to his team’s hurry-up offense, which ran to the ball after each play and wore down the IUP defense.
“It was kind of funny,” Barksdale said, “I looked over at their sideline and I saw about 75 percent of (the Crimson Hawks) down on one knee because they were tired.”
It might have been funny for The Rock (5-1 overall, 2-1 PSAC West), but the Crimson Hawks (5-1, 2-1) saw no amusement in the loss, their worst since 2010, when they lost at Gannon, 45-17.
“Truthfully,” Cignetti said, “I thought they’d maybe start fast and we’d have to catch up. But I wasn’t concerned when it was 14-0. But we just never punched them back.”
Slippery Rock led 7-0 at the end of the first quarter and 28-3 at halftime, thanks to Barksdale’s exploits and three rushing touchdowns, including two by former IUP running back Teddy Blakeman, who transferred to Slippery Rock in 2012.
At halftime, Cignetti implored his team to rally behind its ground game, but that didn’t happen, and Slippery Rock scored two quick touchdowns to make it 42-3 midway through the third quarter.
“At halftime, I thought, We can come back,” Cignetti said. “But it just wasn’t meant to be.”
The IUP offense mustered little until the fourth quarter, but there were a few bright spots. Wide receiver Terrill Barnes had another huge day, with 9 catches for 160 yards and a touchdown, and Drew Carswell had his best day since transferring to IUP from Pitt over the summer, with 7 catches for 103 yards. Quarterback Mike Box passed for 278 yards and a touchdown, but most of it came when the game was long out of reach.
“We kept beating ourselves,” Box said. “We had some stupid penalties. We made it hard on ourselves.”
The Crimson Hawks finished the day with just 59 rushing yards, their lowest output since gaining only 58 against Edinboro in 2004. It was the first game since Cignetti became coach that IUP finished with fewer than 125 rushing yards.
IUP also had a few untimely turnovers, and some penalties slowed the momentum on a few possessions. Some of that can be blamed on IUP, some on Slippery Rock’s physical supremacy.
“We knew if we played physically all four quarters that we’d dominate them,” said Slippery Rock defensive lineman Tony Papley.
It ended up as a day the Crimson Hawks will likely want to forget. But the good news is that losing this game doesn’t mean IUP’s season is over. It just means there’s a lot less wiggle room as the season goes on.
A second loss could be fatal, though.
“The season is far from over,” Box said. “It’s a roller coaster that we’re on.”
And the ride took a frightening turn Saturday against a team that did everything right in delivering a painful loss.
“We can still accomplish a lot of our goals,” Fleming said. “But this definitely hurts right now.”
NOTES: IUP has lost the last three games it has played at Slippery Rock, following losses in 2011 (20-6) and 2009 (7-3). … Three IUP players left the game with injuries and did not return: defensive lineman Akeem Smith; defensive back James Griffin; and Carswell. … Fleming led IUP with 13 tackles. … IUP plays host to Edinboro (3-3) next Saturday.