IUP FOOTBALL: IUP 28, MERCYHURST 6 -- Crimson Hawks' defense gets back on track in win
ERIE — Concerned that his team’s season might be gone with the wind if it didn’t score a victory on Saturday, IUP head coach Curt Cignetti chose to make the blustery weather his friend — and the Crimson Hawks ended up blowing away Mercyhurst.
Reversing a trend that began two weeks ago with consecutive losses to Slippery Rock and Edinboro, the Crimson Hawks came up with a feel-good kind of win Saturday when they dispatched the host Lakers, 28-6, on a wind-swept Tullio Field.
“This showed our resiliency,” said IUP defensive back Terrell Holloway. “Losing is contagious, you know? Successful teams can face adversity and get through it.”
The strong winds were such a factor that Cignetti chose to defer the selection after winning the opening coin toss so IUP (6-2, 3-2 PSAC West) could have the wind at its back in the first quarter. That enabled the Crimson Hawks to get a quick jump on the Lakers (4-4, 2-3) and take a 14-0 lead about eight minutes into the game.
“I thought the wind would be a huge factor in the game,” Cignetti said. “I wanted to have the wind early and get off to a good start.”
With the wind pushing the Crimson Hawks along, quarterback Mike Box and tailback Erik Finklea each scored 1-yard touchdown runs to give IUP a lead it would not relinquish. De’Antwan “Rocket” Williams scored on a 25-yard run in the second quarter, and Box plunged in from a yard out in the closing minute of the fourth quarter for his second touchdown to cap the Crimson Hawks’ scoring.
The wind hurt the Crimson Hawks a couple times, most notably when punter Matt Spegal had to kick into the wind. Spegal had punts of 15, 17 and 23 yards into the wind in the second quarter, and 34, 61 and 40 with the wind in the third quarter.
Mercyhurst’s points came off two first-half field goals from Steven Wakefield, from 25 and 27 yards. Otherwise, the Lakers, who scored 164 points in their past three games, were held in check all afternoon by an IUP defense that had been shredded the past two weeks.
The Crimson Hawks’ defensive game plan was simple, according to Holloway, who broke up four passes, had three tackles, forced a fumble and intercepted a pass.
“To not let them score,” he said. “That’s our goal as a defense: to not let them score. I’m not happy that we gave them six points, but we played well.”
The Crimson Hawks, who gave up 1,086 yards and 11 touchdowns the past two weeks, gave up just 257 yards and allowed the Lakers to enter the red zone just twice, resulting in the two field goals.
IUP was especially stingy against the pass. Mercyhurst gained only 58 yards through the air, and starting quarterback Anthony Vendemia was pulled in the second half and replaced with backup Alec Swartz, who didn’t fare any better. The duo combined to complete only 7 of 27 passes with two interceptions.
“We did a really, really good job against the pass,” Cignetti said. “We covered well and made some plays.”
Senior cornerback Mike Meriwether, who drew the start for injured starter Jay Watkins, had IUP’s other interception.
Because the IUP defense was doing its job, there wasn’t much pressure on the offense once it took the early 14-0 lead. A week after a disastrous outing against Edinboro, Box kept things conservative and completed 10 of 19 passes for 103 yards. He connected with Terrill Barnes six times for 71 yards.
The big story on offense, though, was the ground game. IUP amassed 207 yards on the ground, led by Williams’ 186 yards — most of which came in the second half when the Crimson Hawks wore the Lakers down.
“We came out with the mentality that (running the ball) is what we wanted to do, and we went out and did exactly that,” said left guard Nick Carnicella.
Saturday’s game was the first since the season opener that IUP had its preseason starting five linemen together. Matt Sasson, who broke his hand in the first game, returned to his normal position against Mercyhurst, enabling Mike Charmo to return to right guard, his normal position. Along with tackles Byron Dovales and Jorge Vicioso, the Crimson Hawks plowed their way to one of their better days this season.
“Getting everyone back to where they need to be is a big thing,” Carnicella said. “So much of what we do is mental, so it’s a good thing to have us back where we were supposed to be.”
Holloway, for one, said he wasn’t surprised by the Crimson Hawks’ dominating win. In fact, he earnestly believes IUP can still make some noise this season.
“No, I’m not surprised,” he said. “Not at all. I was surprised by the losses, not by our wins. I believe we’re one of the best teams in the nation. If there is a 9-2 team that could make a push, it’s us, and it’s this year.”
For Cignetti, the key was that the Crimson Hawks just did what needed to be done.
“Our backs were against the wall, and we were playing a team that takes pride in not losing at home,” he said. “They had this game circled from the beginning of the year. We played with a lot more effort and focus than we had been. And we played with a sense of urgency.”
And that’s all the Crimson Hawks can really do. They can’t change the past, so they’re looking ahead to finish the regular season right and see where that takes them.
“This just means that we’re back on track,” Carnicella said. “We’ve got three games left and we’re going to win them all. That’s our goal. It was good to get the first one today. Yeah, I think it’s possible. We’ve got three games left, and we can definitely get three wins.”