If you think the IUP Crimson Hawks aren’t running the ball as much as they used to, you’re not wrong.
But if you think that’s a mistake, well, IUP coach Paul Tortorella thinks you’re wrong.
“We’re still running,” he said, “just not as much as the football purists want.”
So why not?
“Look, to score points, you have to throw the ball,” he said. “So, the best way I can explain it is you need to run the ball to keep people honest. You need to run the ball a little bit to keep your defense off the field. But if you’re wanting to score points, you’re going to have to throw the ball.”
And since scoring more points than your opponent is the objective, it doesn’t seem like the Crimson Hawks will be in a rush to run the football.
The statistics back that up. Through five games, the 16th-ranked Crimson Hawks are averaging 155.6 rushing yards per game, the fifth-highest average in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference. That might sound somewhat impressive, but consider that only three years ago, IUP averaged a league-best 279.8 rushing yards per game, it’s easy to see how things have changed.
IUP is on pace to total roughly 1,700 rushing yards in the regular season, which is less than half the school record, 3,630. What’s more, IUP has not had a 100-yard rusher this season or really anything close: the season high by one player is 74 yards, by Justice Evans against Mercyhurst.
Tortorella said the change to a pass-heavy offensive scheme doesn’t have so much to do with changing times as much as it does the talent on the roster.
The Crimson Hawks brought in quarterback Quinton Maxwell as a one-year transfer after he spent three seasons at Division I Ohio University. All Maxwell has done in his five starts is throw for 1,248 yards and 13 touchdowns despite not playing the entire second half in two lopsided wins. When Maxwell was not playing, another Division I transfer, Jalen Reese (Toledo), was in the game, and in his brief time under center he has thrown for 340 yards and six touchdowns.
Maxwell and Reese have combined to throw for 1,588 yards and 19 touchdowns. Through five games last season, IUP passed for 1,001 yards and 12 scores.
But it’s more than just two good quarterbacks that have fueled the pass-heavy IUP offense. Wide receiver Duane Brown is having the kind of season that usually ends with a bunch of trophies. He has caught 19 passes for 485 yards and nine touchdowns.
Brown has two 100-yard receiving games, and JoJo Gause, Dwine Walls and Cam Turner have one apiece. That total of five 100-yard receiving games is one fewer than IUP had in the entire 2018 and 2017 seasons combined (25 games).
“There comes a point where you have to let your best players decide the game,” Tortorella said.
In last week’s 17-6 win against California in the Coal Bowl, the Crimson Hawks used the passing game to kick-start their offense in the second half. Both touchdowns were on Maxwell-to-Brown throws, from 60 and 34 yards.
On the other side of things, the Vulcans rushed for 135 rushing yards, but they passed for only 95.
“Look at it this way: Cal had a guy rush for (114) yards against us, and they only scored six points,” Tortorella said. “They only scored six points because they only threw for 95 yards. We rushed for (85) yards, and it was enough because we threw for (313), and we had six passes over 20 yards, and both our touchdowns were on passes. That’s why we won.”
IUP isn’t the only team in the PSAC that’s gone pass happy.
Entering this weekend’s games, seven of the 16 teams in the league have called more passes than runs this season. Last season, that number was five, and 10 years ago it was only two. In 2017, Gannon led the PSAC in rushing yardage per game, at 278.3. Two years later, Clarion is on top at 191.0.
Like his own team’s situation, Tortorella said a good quarterback can make teams rethink their long-held beliefs on offense.
“I can see why teams are throwing more,” he said. “There’s a really good quarterback at Slippery Rock (Roland Rivers). There’s a really good quarterback at Cal (Noah Mitchell). Our guy is really good.”
As the season progresses and teams see more and more game film of each other, things might change. The weather could have an effect on it, too, as late October and early November are times in Pennsylvania where being able to run the ball is a huge benefit.
But for now, the Crimson Hawks are content to air it out.
“Being a defense guy, I’d love to run the ball,” Tortorella said. “I mean, I love it. But when we run the ball, we take the ball out if our best players’ hands.”