To the uninformed, it looks like the toughest games are behind the IUP Crimson Hawks.
They beat New Haven and California and lost to Slippery Rock. All that’s left is a lightweight run to finish the regular season, right? There’s Clarion (3-3), then Gannon (2-4), Seton Hill (1-4) and Edinboro (1-5) before ending things at Shippensburg (1-5) before the playoffs start.
No way, said IUP coach Paul Tortorella. He won’t even entertain those thoughts. Especially with the first one up, Clarion, which plays host to the Crimson Hawks on Saturday.
In the past two meetings, IUP survived the Golden Eagles in every sense of the word, winning by six points on the road in 2017 and only one at home last year. In those two seasons, Clarion finished a combined 5-17.
“If Clarion played the rest of the league the way they play against us, they’d have a chance to win the league,” he said. “I can’t be any more clear than that. That’s the bottom line. They could have beat us two years ago. They had a 20-0 lead on us last year, so I don’t really know what else to look at.”
When Tortorella looks at the Golden Eagles, he doesn’t see a team that has made a habit of finishing close to the bottom of the standings in the PSAC West.
He sees a team coached by Chris Weibel that has shown the ability to not be intimidated by IUP and push the Crimson Hawks around
“I think (Weibel) is a really good coach,” he said. “I think he does a really good job. Maybe they put more emphasis on the game versus us, I don’t know.”
What he does know is that his Crimson Hawks had better be prepared to play come noon Saturday, when they take the field for the first time since losing a heartbreaker at Slippery Rock last weekend. In that game, IUP fell behind 31-7, then rallied but fell short by three points, 45-42.
Licking the wounds following a loss is bad enough, but having to do it following a loss to a bitter rival is even worse.
“I could give you the coaching clich￩ and say a loss is a loss,” Tortorella said, “but if there’s one game you don’t want to lose, it’s to them.”
But the loss won’t define the Crimson Hawks if they take care of business the rest of that way. And the cold fact is that even IUP had beaten Slippery Rock, it would be in the same mind set as it has now.
“The best way to look at it is this: Whether we won or lost that game, our goal right now is still the same as it would have been whether we won, which is to win the next game,” Tortorella said. “That’s it. Whether we won or lost, you got to win the next game, right? They’re saying the same thing up there that we’re saying and they won the game. So nothing’s really changed. What’s happened from now back means really nothing. And whatever’s going to happen after this week’s game really means nothing. All that matters is your next game. I mean, I know that that’s not like the sexy answer, but that’s really all that matters.”
That’s why Tortorella doesn’t expect his team to come out flat against Clarion. The Crimson Hawks have no margin for error, and they know it. Throw in that they have struggled to put the Golden Eagles away the last two meetings, and it’s pretty clear that IUP doesn’t expect this game to be easy.
“It’s common sense,” he said. “You’re playing Saturday, you gotta win. Whether you won last week or you didn’t, you gotta win this Saturday and that’s the goal every week. Hopefully this team will understand that our backs are to the wall now and nothing really matters other than the Clarion game.”
There is a possibility Clarion will have to play without its best offensive player, running back Mylique McGriff, who leads the PSAC with 607 rushing yards despite playing in only four and three-quarter games. He suffered a leg injury two weeks ago against Seton Hill and did not play last week vs. California. Without McGriff, Clarion gained only 51 yards on the ground in a 35-20 loss.
If McGriff doesn’t play, Tortorella said he expects Clarion to air it out, with four-year starting quarterback Jeff Clemens throwing the ball a lot.
“I think their mindset is, well, (McGriff is) not here, we’re gonna go start throwing it,” he said. “Whereas with him, even if it isn’t working, they’re going to keep feeding him the ball.”
Regardless of how the Clarion offense tries to move the ball, the Crimson Hawks know they’re in for a fight. The last two years prove that.
But if the Crimson Hawks should take care of business, they’ll be one step closer to getting back to the playoffs after missing out last season. That’s the team’s goal right now, because once the tournament begins, records don’t matter and everyone has an equal shot at winning the national championship.
“We just got to get in,” Tortorella said, “because once that happens, it doesn’t matter who you play or where you play. If you win, you keep playing.”