It’s not a matter of what happened at Slippery Rock that matters now. The question is why.
Why did a defense that hadn’t allowed more than 378 yards and 20 points to any opponent this season give up 676 yards and 42 points to Slippery Rock?
Why did an offense that averaged more than 400 yards and nearly 40 points per game muster just 337 yards and 16 points against an unheralded defense that had allowed fewer than 34 points just once all year?
And most importantly, why did a team that fired on all cylinders last week against Millersville seem stuck in first gear against its most bitter rival?
Those are some of the many questions the IUP Crimson Hawks are dealing with in the wake of their stunning 42-16 loss to Slippery Rock on Saturday. It was a game that was supposed to pit the PSAC’s top defense against one of its best offenses, but that matchup ended up being one-sided.
And suddenly, the once-invincible Crimson Hawks now seem flawed.
Coach Curt Cignetti, who suffered the worst defeat of his career, said some changes might need to be made this week as IUP (5-1) prepares to take on Edinboro (3-3) on Saturday.
“We’ve got to identify 22 hard-nosed players and get them on the football field,” Cignetti said Saturday after the loss.
That doesn’t necessarily mean there will be some new starters this week, but there were enough mistakes Saturday that no starter probably feels safe about his job.
On offense, the main issue was that the Crimson Hawks couldn’t run the ball. Their vaunted ground game, which averaged 203.8 yards per game, totaled just 59 against Slippery Rock.
On defense, IUP couldn’t stop The Rock’s ground game, which amassed 227 yards, and consequently got eaten alive by Slippery Rock quarterback Nigel Barksdale, who finished with 425 passing yards.
It was a poor performance that was so unexpected that there were few answers to be found immediately afterward. But the bottom line is this: On Saturday, Slippery Rock was just the better team.
That’s a difficult proposition for the Crimson Hawks to swallow, and the guilt is widespread.
“All of our guys take this personal,” said senior linebacker Carl Fleming. “I take this real personal.”
But the good news is that the Crimson Hawks’ season is not lost because of one loss. In fact, there are a couple examples of how one loss can fuel a sustained playoff run:
• Just last year, the Crimson Hawks dropped a painful 26-24 decision at California, but rebounded to win seven straight games, including the PSAC championship, en route to a berth in the Super Region One final.
• In 1999, IUP fell to 3-3 after it lost to Millersville 10-9 a week following a 52-14 whipping at the hands of Slippery Rock. After reeling off four straight wins to reach the playoffs, IUP began a run to the national semifinals that included revenge wins over Slippery Rock (27-20) and Millersville (26-21).
Those two examples might give some solace to fans who were stunned by Saturday’s loss. But they mean little for the players, the ones who suffered through a painful afternoon and now face some major doubts.
“As of right now,” said quarterback Mike Box, “we can’t dwell on this. It’s on us to put this behind us and focus on our next opponent.”