For the IUP Crimson Hawks, it all comes down to one final afternoon of hope.
If they are to get into the NCAA Division II playoffs, the Crimson Hawks (8-2) can only worry about what they have control of, and that’s their game Saturday at Shippensburg in the regular-season finale.
A loss to the Raiders (7-3) means the season is definitely over; a win means there’s still a flicker of hope that things might actually end up in IUP’s favor. So the team’s mindset this week hasn’t been on the myriad scenarios that have to occur for IUP to get back to the playoffs. Instead, it’s on Shippensburg, a team it has beaten 21 consecutive times, dating to the 1989 season.
Among those 21 straight wins was a 41-10 thrashing of the Raiders in last year’s State Game, the championship of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.
“Somebody’s gotta win and somebody’s gotta lose,” said IUP head coach Curt Cignetti. “We’re focused in on Shippensburg. It’s not over ’til it’s over.”
Since losing to Slippery Rock and Edinboro in the middle of the season, the Crimson Hawks have run off three straight wins — by a combined score of 125 to 40 — to get back into playoff contention.
“We knew what the situation was after we lost to Edinboro,” Cignetti said. “We’ve really been focused on trying to become the best team that we can be. I think we’ve made pretty significant strides the last three weeks.”
IUP enters Saturday’s game as the No. 10 team in the Super Region One rankings. It will need to climb to at least No. 6 to get to the playoffs, and there is some reason to think that’s possible, since No. 9 Concord plays No. 1 Shepherd, No. 8 Stonehill plays No. 7 American International, No. 6 Virginia State plays No. 2 Winston-Salem State and No. 5 Slippery Rock plays No. 3 Bloomsburg on Saturday.
But none of those games will matter to IUP if the Crimson Hawks don’t beat Shippensburg, and that won’t be an easy task by any means. The Raiders feature record-setting quarterback Zach Zulli, who guides a high-octane offense that has scored at least 29 points in nine consecutive games.
That’s similar to last season, when Zulli was the engineer of an offense that put up even gaudier numbers en route to a matchup with IUP in the PSAC championship game at Miller Stadium. But that afternoon, the IUP defense came up with its signature performance, holding the Raiders to 43 points fewer than their average.
This year’s offense is a bit different. The reason for the change is a new coordinator, Joe Davis, who brought his own offense to the team.
Shippensburg started off with high hopes, and the Raiders were ranked No. 2 in one preseason poll. But they started off by being shut out by Shepherd, and then took one on the chin to Slippery Rock that essentially ended their playoff hopes.
But Shippensburg has rebounded, and the Raiders have won seven of their past eight games, with the lone loss coming three weeks ago to West Chester, 32-29.
“They were ranked second in the country and they lost a couple of games and they had a gut check,” Cignetti said. “They’ve responded and they’ve played really well. Our guys have done the same thing.”
Zulli, the reigning Harlon Hill Award winner, is one of the most prolific passers in PSAC history, with nearly 11,000 career passing yards and 121 touchdowns. His main target, Trevor Harman, has caught a single-season school record 95 passes this year, including 20 touchdowns.
“The offense is not the same as last year,” Cignetti said, “but as the weeks have gone on, they’ve become more multiple and they’re clicking on all cylinders right now. I think it took them a while with the new offense to get settled in. They’re doing a lot that they did last year, but they’ve incorporated some new things, too.”
There might be some wrinkles in a new offense, but one thing remains for the Raiders: that long losing skid to IUP. Cignetti knows it won’t be hard for Shippensburg to find motivation for this game, and considering all that’s on the line Saturday, it also won’t be hard for IUP to get up for this one.
“I’m sure they’re using last year as some extra motivation,” he said. “So I’m sure that they’re gonna be pretty excited. But we will be, too. This will be a very difficult challenge against a very good team that is playing really good right now.”