Some of the mistakes that ruined IUP’s 2018 season returned in the 2019 season opener.
But one of them did not.
That’s why the Crimson Hawks walked off the field winners on Saturday after topping New Haven, 24-13, in a non-conference battle of regional heavyweights at Frank Cignetti Field.
As far as the details go, it wasn’t pretty.
The Crimson Hawks turned the ball over four times. They struggled to run the ball on offense and to stop it on defense. And they had too many penalties at inopportune times.
Yet, when the Chargers — the preseason favorites to win the Northeast-10 Conference — closed the gap and made it a game, the Crimson Hawks took the momentum back and beat New Haven for the seventh time in the 10-game series.
A year ago, IUP lost back-to-back games to California and Slippery Rock despite holding the lead in the fourth quarter in each game. That inability to deliver the knockout punch plagued them all year, and they fell short of their expectations.
“In those two games, we didn’t get it done in the fourth quarter and at crucial times,” said IUP coach Paul Tortorella. “So, it was good to see that we did it today.”
The Crimson Hawks took an early 14-0 lead, but New Haven kept its composure, rallied and were within four points, at 17-13, early in the fourth quarter. But that’s when the Crimson Hawks clamped down, with the defense forcing a turnover and the offense scoring a much-needed touchdown, sealing the 11-point win in front of 2,798 fans.
“I think this shows where we’re at as a team,” said senior linebacker Nick Amendola, who had one of IUP’s three interceptions. “It definitely wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t very pretty. But we stuck together as a team.”
That fact alone was reason for the Crimson Hawks to celebrate, because their play Saturday admittedly left a lot to be desired. But it was the first game, and a lot of the mistakes were of the first-game kind.
The biggest miscues were the four turnovers. New quarterback Quinton Maxwell, a transfer from Division I Ohio, was picked off three times, and tailback Justice Evans coughed up the ball in the fourth quarter.
But it should be noted that two of the interceptions were not entirely Maxwell’s fault. The first one was tipped by a New Haven player and picked off by another, and the second went in and out of tight end Grant Smith’s hands before being intercepted.
But Maxwell shouldered the blame.
“I’ve got to fix that,” he said. “I’ve just got to. I’ve got to execute better. I mean, all three of those are on me. I’ve just got to get back to the drawing board, eliminate those and figure out ways to get better.”
Other than the interceptions, Maxwell had an impressive debut with the Crimson Hawks. He completed 13 of 21 attempts for 163 yards, and it took him all of 27 seconds to throw his first touchdown pass.
After connecting with JoJo Gause for 18 yards on his first play from scrimmage, his second pass went for a 47-yard touchdown to Duane Brown. The throw was awfully difficult, as the right-handed Maxwell was scrambling to his left when he threw into the end zone off his back foot. Brown, who had sneaked behind the New Haven cornerback, waited and then hauled in the long pass to put IUP ahead 7-0.
“There’s not many guys at this level who can make that throw,” Tortorella said, “and Duane did a great job of coming back for the ball.”
Maxwell showed his ability to make all the throws good quarterbacks can make, hitting Gause, Smith, Jacob Watts and Dom McNeil on timing routes that moved the chains.
“‘Q’ just brings that precision,” said Brown. “We trust him to take care of business and he trusts us to do our jobs. He’s got a connection with all of us receivers, and that’s dangerous for the other team when you have that connection with your quarterback.”
Brown’s touchdown catch, followed by Evans’ 20-yard run on the last play of the first quarter, gave IUP a 14-0 lead. The Chargers cut the deficit in half on Brett Huber’s 7-yard touchdown catch from Nick Robins, but Dillon Sarka made a 24-yard field goal late in the quarter to send IUP to halftime up by 10.
The third quarter was when the Chargers mounted their comeback. Although they managed only a field goal, both IUP drives ended with interceptions, giving New Haven some life.
That’s the point where Tortorella found out something about his team’s gumption. The Chargers had two possessions in the fourth quarter, and both ended with turnovers of their own: IUP senior linebacker Damon Lloyd recovered a fumble forced by true freshman safety Zayaan Cobb, and sophomore defensive back Devin Castro intercepted a pass in the end zone with four minutes to play.
“Making stops like that just gives us all the momentum,” Amendola said. “It’s as simple as that. It helps the offense.”
Sandwiched between the New Haven turnovers was Brown’s second touchdown, a 2-yard run. The scoring drive, which covered 60 yards on 10 plays, was the perfect complement to the defense’s stops.
But it was more than that.
The touchdown, along with the two turnovers the defense forced, were proof that this year’s team — in one way — already has a leg up on last year’s.
“If both sides of the ball play well, we’re going to be a tough out for anybody,” Maxwell said. “So this gives us a lot of confidence going forward.”
NOTES: Cobb took over for senior Shaq Jones, who suffered a concussion on the third play of the game. He recorded eight tackles in his college debut. … Sophomore defensive tackle Raunya Mitchell, who had two sacks last season as a freshman, had two on Saturday. Damon Lloyd and Dajour Fisher also had sacks. … Brown had a 40-yard punt return in the first quarter wiped out by a penalty, and cornerback Nazir Streater had a pick-six interception erased by another yellow flag. IUP was called for only six penalties, but they totaled 111 yards. … IUP visits Millersville on Saturday.