This much is certain: The IUP Crimson Hawks are not out of the playoff race.
They’re just way behind the leaders, and time’s running out as the finish line approaches.
After back-to-back losses to Slippery Rock (42-16) and Edinboro (36-30), IUP will try to regroup when it visits Erie on Saturday to take on Mercyhurst in a PSAC West game at Tullio Field.
Prior to the two losses, the Crimson Hawks were in control of their own destiny, and they had their sights set on a division title, conference championship and spot in the NCAA Division II playoffs. Since the losses, IUP’s plans have all but been dashed, and the Crimson Hawks will need a lot of help from other teams for any of those three goals to be reached.
“I said something (about the playoffs) in passing (to the team),” IUP head coach Curt Cignetti said, “but we’ve got to control what we can control. Whatever happens after that, happens.”
The playoff selection process is a complicated one.
The teams in Division II are divided into four regions. IUP (5-2 overall, 2-2 PSAC West) is in Super Region one, along with the rest of the teams from the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, plus the Northeast-10 and Mountain East conferences, and the CIAA.
A committee of eight persons, all coaches or athletic directors, uses a formula that takes into account many variables to rank the teams, and then the committee tweaks it however they choose. At the end of the season, the top six teams in each of the four regions earn playoff spots.
As it stands, there are 13 teams in the region that currently have the same or a better record than IUP, including five in the PSAC. So it’s clear that the Crimson Hawks have their work cut out for themselves.
Another loss means the season will end in three weeks.
“We need to win this game,” Cignetti said. “This is a game where we need to go up there and get a win and get it going again.”
That won’t be a an easy task at all, considering the Lakers (4-3, 3-1) are on a three-game win streak, including a 51-21 thrashing of their most bitter rival, Gannon, last Thursday night. Mercyhurst has scored 164 points during the streak, which is more than any other team in the conference in that span.
The Lakers have averaged 547 yards per game the past three weeks, which probably isn’t welcomed news for an IUP defense that has given up more than 1,000 yards in the past two weeks alone.
“They’re playing really well,” Cignetti said. “They’re coming off an emotional big win vs. Gannon. But they go as their offense goes. Their offense is sort of the catalyst of their football team.”
Because of that, the emphasis for the Crimson Hawks will be on running the ball and keeping the Mercyhurst offense on the sideline.
“We’ve given up too many big plays the last two weeks,” Cignetti said. “We’ve got to find a way to stop that. We’ve got to find a way to get first downs on offense, hold the ball and keep our defense off the field.”
But should the Crimson Hawks come out on top, they’ll know they still have a shot at getting back to the playoffs, and that’s a goal Cignetti doesn’t want to give up just yet. It might be a tough thing to accomplish, but that would make it all the more sweeter.
“It could happen,” he said of the playoffs. “But we just need to play a lot better than we have been playing.”