The IUP Crimson Hawks have won eight of their nine games, are ranked nationally and regionally, seem well on their way to the playoffs, and are outscoring their opponents by an average of 24 points per game.
Yet one thing is clear: The Crimson Hawks could — and they say should — be better than this.
“We’ve got to keep working to get better,” running back Justice Evans said Saturday after IUP thumped Seton Hill, 50-23. “When we put it all together, it should be scary for other teams. It’ll happen.”
In beating the Griffins for the seventh consecutive time, the Crimson Hawks (8-1) did plenty of things right to win the game easily. They ran for 290 yards and held Seton Hill to only 13 yards on the ground. They jumped out to a 23-0 lead and never led by fewer than 20 points the rest of the way.
But it was the things the Crimson Hawks didn’t do well that they know must be fixed or else their season won’t last long once they get to the playoffs.
Perhaps the silver lining is that there isn’t any specific area that needs fixing. It’s just that there have been moments when IUP didn’t look anything like a team capable of making a long playoff run. Those moments have been brief, but noticeable.
“We’ve just got to get a better mindset about it,” said right guard Josh Dauberman. “We know that some time we’re going to be running into a team that is as good as we are, and we need to play better when that happens. There’s got to be a time when we have to step it up and play a clean game. We’ve been making strides in different areas and we’re getting better.”
To be clear, the Crimson Hawks have not really had a bad game this season. They’ve just had bad quarters and a couple bad halves. The question is why. The answer isn’t so easy to figure out.
But maybe, said coach Paul Tortorella, it has something to do with what IUP’s opponents are trying to do.
“You’re always looking for consistency,” he said. “You’re always looking for all three phases to be on point. But it’s just hard to get that 60-minute game anymore because the other teams, they’re not going to let you do that.”
Seton Hill won the special teams battle Saturday by blocking a punt and an extra point, recovering a fumble on a punt return and setting themselves up with good field position with a couple good kickoff returns.
It was the first game all season when IUP had some glaring issues on special teams. In other games, there have been problems on offense and defense, mostly dealing with penalties, inefficiency and a lack of cohesiveness.
In the annual Coal Bowl vs. California, the Crimson Hawks didn’t score at all in the first half, but rallied for a 17-6 win. Against Slippery Rock the next week, IUP fell behind 31-7 because of some offensive inefficiencies and some defensive lapses, and its second-half rally fell short.
There have been moments in other games when IUP didn’t look much like the team it prides itself on being. The most likely reason the Crimson Hawks have not been forced to pay for their mistakes is that the inconsistent play has not lasted very long.
But it makes the Crimson Hawks wonder what it would be like if they put it all together.
“I couldn’t tell you what is that reason why we don’t play all four quarters,” said senior defensive end Dondrea Tillman. “I have no idea. But if we did it, it would be amazing. The sky’s the limit.”
IUP has two games remaining on the regular-season schedule to get things ironed out before the NCAA Division II playoffs begin. Tortorella said addressing his team’s unpredictable season of inconsistency has already begun because the Crimson Hawks can’t afford to be anything but their best if they want their season to end with some hardware to add to the trophy case.
“We just got to take what we didn’t do well, learn from it and get ready for next week,” Tortorella said. “At this time of the year, the teams that do that will continue to win and keep going and the ones who don’t will eventually come to the end.”