Last week was unfathomable. Saturday was unexpected.
The playoffs? They’re probably unattainable.
What a weird, shocking and painful nine days it’s been for the IUP Crimson Hawks.
Once the No. 7-ranked team in the country, the Crimson Hawks were dealt Saturday their second straight loss, this time 36-30 to Edinboro at Frank Cignetti Field. It further wrecked an otherwise promising season — one that had IUP talking about such lofty goals as an undefeated season and a national championship.
Instead, the Crimson Hawks are now left to wonder how it all went wrong in a matter of two Saturdays: a 42-16 embarrassment last week at Slippery Rock, and Saturday’s stunner against a team that had little going for itself before pulling off the upset.
“We just have to regroup and get ready,” said IUP head coach Curt Cignetti. “The kids are disappointed. I’m disappointed for them. I wish there was more I could do. I think there are some things we can still do to become better, but these guys have to stay close, rally around one other and play for some pride.”
Unlike last week, when the Crimson Hawks (5-2) just ran into a superior team playing at its best, Saturday’s game was more of an exercise in frustration for IUP, which lost at home for the first time in almost two years. The Crimson Hawks had five turnovers, several special teams miscues and they couldn’t make a critical stop on defense.
“My pride is hurt,” said quarterback Mike Box, who threw for 95 yards on 10 of 22 passing with two interceptions. “We lost. I don’t really have anything to say.”
Conversely, the Fighting Scots had some breaks go their way, and they used them to their advantage every time. They also used some trickery to help their cause, including a big 22-yard pass on a fake punt that set up a touchdown, as well as a score off a blocked punt in the second quarter that quieted the home crowd.
“We came down with one goal today, and that was to try to find a way when the game was over to have more points than the opponent,” said Edinboro head coach Scott Browning, whose team lost last week 55-7 to Gannon.
Behind redshirt freshman quarterback Jon Girvin, the Fighting Scots used big plays in the passing game and took an early lead that grew to as many as 16 points in the third quarter. Starting in place of injured star Cody Harris, Girvin completed 14 of 27 attempts for 262 yards and three touchdowns without an interception.
In the past two weeks, the IUP defense, which was once ranked No. 1 in the country against the pass, has allowed a combined 733 passing yards and five touchdowns. In the first five games of the season, the Crimson Hawks gave up just 616 passing yards and one touchdown while intercepting 13 passes.
“We’re having problems pressuring the quarterback,” Cignetti said. “And then when we’re in position to be playing the ball in the air, we’re not doing it very well.”
The Crimson Hawks did have a few bright spots, most noticeably kicker Brett Ullman, who drilled two field goals, from 43 yards out and another from 41. Also, defensive back Terrell Holloway blocked a punt, and linebacker Carl Fleming recorded a game-high 12 tackles. But there just weren’t enough positives for IUP to outweigh the negatives.
While the Edinboro offense was rolling up 410 total yards, the Crimson Hawks were struggling to do much with the ball. Tailback De’Antwan Williams finished with 129 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, but many of those yards were gained after the Fighting Scots had taken the lead and they were protecting against the pass.
The IUP offense had a big problem on first downs, when it gained either fewer than four yards or turned the ball over 17 times out of 27 first downs. Browning said that was a key.
“Everyone talks about third down, but I said, ‘If you want to be successful, you have to win on first down,’” Browning said. “That really is what we did. I think we won a lot of first downs. Our goal is to keep them to four yards or less, and we did that a lot. I think if you can do that against a team like IUP, you really give yourself a chance.”
Unfortunately for IUP, the passing game was out of synch all afternoon. Cignetti pulled Box in the third quarter and replaced him with freshman Logan Weaver, who led IUP to Ullman’s third field goal before ending his second possession with an interception.
“We made the change just to see if that would give us a shot in the arm,” Cignetti said.
Box didn’t like the move, although he responded well by guiding the Crimson Hawks to a touchdown — on an 18-yard strike to Terrill Barnes, when he was put back in the game.
“There’s nothing I can say about it,” Box said. “Was I happy? No.”
After Barnes’ touchdown, the IUP defense thought it had caught a break when Marco Pecora scooped up an apparent fumble and returned it about 30 yards for a score, but the officials conferred and ruled the Edinboro ball carrier was down before the ball came out.
Cignetti lamented the missed opportunity.
“We were running that in for a touchdown and they called it dead,” he said. “I think they blew that call. We’d have been up one point with all kinds of momentum.”
And then on Edinboro’s final possession, there was another loose ball that IUP recovered, but the officials again ruled it was not a fumble.
Those were the second and third times the officials made calls that had an impact. Late in the second quarter, Barnes returned a punt 52 yards and was near the end zone when he lost the ball. The officials ruled it had hit the front pylon before rolling out of bounds, making it a touchback, giving Edinboro the ball back.
At the time, Edinboro was leading 22-20. Had the Crimson Hawks retained possession, a touchdown was almost a certainty, and they would have entered halftime with the lead.
“It looked like the ball went out of bounds (before hitting the pylon), and that would have been a big score for us going into halftime,” Cignetti said. “I’m not sure they made the right call.”
Yet, despite all these issues, the Crimson Hawks still had a chance to win the game.
After Box connected with Barnes for a touchdown to make it 36-30, the IUP defense forced a punt, and the Crimson Hawks took over at their own 14-yard line. On a second-down pass play, Box threw a pass over the middle that Edinboro safety Delano Fabor intercepted to essentially seal the game.
“There was no doubt in my mind we were going to go down there and score,” said IUP left tackle Byron Dovales. “None at all. I wasn’t even worried about it. But then I saw (Fabor) go up and get the ball and my heart just dropped.”
The loss leaves the Crimson Hawks in a precarious position. Winning its final four games might not be enough to earn IUP anything at all, other than a 9-2 record. A division title, playoff berth or championship run all seem like long shots at best now.
So what’s next?
“That is a great question,” Box said. “You hope that somebody else screws up because we’ve let our destiny out of our hands. For the seniors it’s now, unless something happens, all about pride.”
That’s a far cry from where this season started.
Cignetti said maybe the problem is that the Crimson Hawks started to believe all the hype.
“Yeah, I think they probably did,” he said. “I do think these guys kind of bought into the hype a little bit. Last week was just a shock. And today … was another shock.”