In just a few short days, the IUP Crimson Hawks will find out if their late-season push is a case of being too little and too late.
Until then, it’s worth noting just how well the Crimson Hawks (8-2) have been playing as they prepare to wrap up the regular season Saturday at Shippensburg (7-3) in a key Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference crossover game.
Since being dealt back-to-back losses by Slippery Rock and Edinboro last month, the Crimson Hawks have rattled off three straight blowout wins, over Mercyhurst (28-6), Clarion (42-14) and Gannon (55-20).
“The kids have bounced back, and I give them a lot of credit for that,” IUP head coach Curt Cignetti said Tuesday, at his weekly news conference. “They’re playing well.”
That might be an understatement.
Over the past three weeks, the Crimson Hawks have rolled up 1,370 yards of offense and scored 125 points for an average of 456.7 yards and 41.7 points per game. IUP’s 658 total yards of offense against Gannon are the most in any game the team has played this millennium.
On defense, IUP has allowed an average of 297.0 yards and 13.3 points per game in the same stretch.
Senior quarterback Mike Box is coming off the best game of his career in Saturday’s win over Gannon.
Against the Golden Knights, Box completed 21 of 25 passes for 378 yards, four touchdowns and one interception.
In the past three weeks, the former UConn transfer has completed 38 of 56 attempts for 560 yards, five touchdowns and one interception.
His passer rating has climbed 11 points in the past three weeks, from 136.6 to 147.4, the second-best rating among PSAC West quarterbacks.
“I am glad to see Mike closing out so strong,” Cignetti said. “No one puts more time into preparation or cares more than Mike Box.”
Among other solid performances the past three weeks: wide receiver Terrill Barnes has caught 16 passes for 254 yards and two touchdowns, running back De’Antwan Williams went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season, and fellow senior Erik Finklea gained a career-high 174 yards against Gannon on just 12 carries.
On defense, Erik Williams has intercepted two passes, Marco Pecora returned one pick for a score against Clarion and Carl Fleming has had a team-high 25 tackles.
Also, several young players have made key contributions since the Edinboro loss, including true freshmen Nick Dubowski, Kevin Edwards and Ethan Cooper, and redshirt freshmen Allen Holman, Kevin Clarke and James Price.
It’s enough of an improvement to make the normally calm Cignetti smile. It’s just a shame the Crimson Hawks didn’t take flight and start playing their best football until their backs were against the wall.
“Defeat offers an opportunity for growth and improvement, and I think that’s what happened here,” Cignetti said. “While it was painful, the lessons learned will be valuable to all later in life. The team learned from defeat and became stronger.”
The question, though, is whether the Crimson Hawks have played well enough to get to the playoffs. In the most recent NCAA Division II regional rankings, IUP is No. 10 in Super Region One, meaning the Crimson Hawks need to leap over at least four teams to be in the top six next Sunday when the playoff selections are announced in order to have their season continue.
That’s a tall order, especially considering two of the teams ranked between No. 6 and No. 9, American International (8-2) and Stonehill (8-2), play each other on Saturday. The best hope for IUP is a major upset, perhaps a win by Clarion (4-6) over No. 4 West Chester (9-1). But if the Crimson Hawks don’t beat Shippensburg on Saturday, what else happens in the region won’t matter.
“I don’t know for sure, to be honest with you,” Cignetti said, when asked what needs to happen to get his team to the playoffs. “We just need to win this week.”
NOTES: Box was named the PSAC West Offensive Player of the Week for his efforts against Gannon. … Cignetti said senior offensive lineman Mike Charmo (concussion) has been ruled out for Saturday’s game, and Cooper will start in his place at right guard. … Tight end Tyler Dummermuth (concussion), fullback Dom Maggio (shoulder) and cornerback Jay Watkins (groin), who did not play last week, are expected back this week.