SLIPPERY ROCK — IUP fell behind and could have packed it in Saturday. The Crimson Hawks had the option to lay down and let their most bitter rival roll over them.
But the Crimson Hawks didn’t. They rallied. They scared the daylights out of Slippery Rock, but they fell short, and that’s all there really is to say about it.
For a team that has set the bar incredibly high for itself, maybe quarterback Quinton Maxwell said it best.
“There’s no such thing as a consolation win,” Maxwell said. “There’s no such thing as a moral victory.”
The 16th-ranked Crimson Hawks spotted The Rock a 24-point lead in the first half, then stormed back and stunned the hosts with a rally for the ages that nearly ended with a landmark victory. Instead, No. 9 Slippery Rock survived to earn a 45-42 win in front of almost 10,000 fans at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium.
What was billed as the game of the year lived up to the hype, although neither team walked off the field feeling like it had left everything on the field. The teams combined to be flagged for 24 penalties, covering 260 yards and resulting in nine first downs. They each had a turnover, each missed a field goal, and each made enough mistakes that could have cost them the game.
“There’s a lot of disappointment, and that’s because we lost,” said IUP safety Shaq Jones, “But believe me, lessons come from every loss. I think we can use this loss to move forward and build off it.”
The most critical times for IUP were the beginning and the end. That’s when the Crimson Hawks dug themselves a hole, and when they got buried in it.
IUP (5-1 overall, 2-1 PSAC West) admittedly came out flat, and before many of the fans made their way from the tailgate party to their seats, Slippery Rock (6-0, 3-0) was ahead 17-0. Then after rallying to pull within three points in the fourth quarter, the Crimson Hawks allowed The Rock to seal the win with a seven-minute scoring drive.
IUP answered with a touchdown, but it was too little, too late. Slippery Rock recovered the ensuing onside kick, dealing IUP its first loss of the season.
“We didn’t get off the field (defensively) at the end of the game,” lamented IUP coach Paul Tortorella, “but we got the ball back and scored again. We just ran out of time.”
That’s not how it looked like the game would end when it started. The Slippery Rock offense got on the board first, on a DeSean Dinkins 2-yard run, and then its defense helped the cause when linebacker Trystan McDonald intercepted Maxwell’s pass near the goal line and returned it 5 yards for a score. Kicker Jake Chapla added a field goal a few minutes later, and the Crimson Hawks found themselves down 17-0.
“I just don’t feel like we were settled in,” Jones said. “We came up here to play a pretty hyped-up game, but I feel like everyone was emotionally out of whack a little.”
Maxwell, who threw for 360 yards and four touchdowns, was just 3-for-10 for 23 yards in the first quarter.
“I didn’t play very well in the first half,” he said. “We didn’t execute in the first half as an offense. When you play a good team and you get down big like that, it’s going to come back to bite you. Looking at me, I have to play better. I have to take care of the ball.”
It wasn’t just Maxwell who was struggling. Penalties killed several first-half IUP drives, and one erased what would have been a Duane Brown 42-yard touchdown on a punt return. The Crimson Hawks finished the day with 14 penalties for 135 yards.
“You have to understand that as a football player, and we talk about it all the time, that if it’s even close, it’s going to get called,” Tortorella said. “And sometimes it’s going to get called, even if it’s not a penalty.”
IUP made it 17-7 on Justice Evans’ 10-yard run early in the second quarter, but more mistakes plagued IUP, and Slippery Rock capitalized with two more touchdowns for a commanding 31-7 lead with about four minutes left in the half.
But just when things were the darkest, the Crimson Hawks came to life. Maxwell connected with Brown for a 2-yard touchdown with 30 seconds left before halftime, sending them into the locker room with some momentum.
Across the field, Slippery Rock coach Shawn Lutz was worried.
“I never felt really good in the game,” he said. “Put this way: I (would have) felt good if we would have held them right before half and we were up 31-7 because then it was 31-14 and they got the ball to start the second half. So I knew it was going to be a football game the second half.”
And it was.
IUP made it 31-21 on Maxwell’s 8-yard touchdown pass to Dom McNeil, but Slippery Rock answered in only 28 seconds, with Roland Rivers hitting Jermaine Wynn for a 38-yard score.
The IUP defense then settled down, and Slippery Rock didn’t do much offensively as the Crimson Hawks continued to fight back. McNeal, who caught a career-high 10 passes for 141 yards, hauled in a 17-yard touchdown to make it 38-28, and then JoJo Gause made it 38-35 with an acrobatic 17-yard scoring catch of his own with 8:35 left in the fourth quarter.
Needing to make a stop to get the offense the ball back, the IUP defense took the field knowing the game was in the balance. So did Slippery Rock, and the hosts used a 14-play, 75-yard drive to eat a little more than seven minutes off the clock, with Charles Snorweah dashing in from 12 yards to make it 45-35.
The drive was a thing of beauty for Slippery Rock and a thing of agony for IUP. Rivers converted two third downs and one fourth down, including a 13-yard pass to Cinque Sweeting on third-and-7. On that play, Rivers was nearly sacked at least three times and seemed to cover every inch of turf available while scrambling around.
Slippery Rock was also aided by a disputed call on the play before, when it looked like Rivers had been sacked along the sideline, but officials ruled he threw an incomplete pass before going down.
“That would have been a 15-yard loss,” Tortorella said, “We had him. … I thought his knee was down before he threw the ball, but I didn’t get an explanation on that.”
Snorweah’s touchdown left IUP 82 seconds to deal with, and Maxwell took his team 65 yards in 1:14, with completions to McNeil (25 and 19 yards) and Jacob Watts (20) helping the cause. Maxwell bull-rushed his way into the end zone for a score, but there was only nine seconds on the clock.
IUP tried an onside kick, but Slippery Rock recovered it to end the threat.
It was a classic of a game that both teams will remember for a long time. It just won’t be a good memory for the Crimson Hawks.
“We gave it our all today, but we came up a little short,” Maxwell said. “I think everybody … realizes that if we play a little bit better at times, maybe the result is different. But you can’t dwell on that.
You got to move on.”
On the winning side, Lutz marveled at what a game it was.
“Feel free to disagree with me,” he said. “I’m really going to say this: I think us and IUP are (two) of the best teams in the damn country.”