For a football program with this legacy of success, the IUP Crimson Hawks are strangers in a strange land: They’re underdogs.
And the way coach Paul Tortorella sees it, they’re huge underdogs.
That’s right. The Crimson Hawks, who have won more games, division titles and playoff games than any other team in the long history of the PSAC West Division, are 4-1, but feeling like they’re predicted to lose Saturday when they visit unbeaten Slippery Rock.
“We have lost to them twice in a row,” Tortorella said. “They’re at home. It’s their homecoming. They’re the defending conference champs. They’re the defending region champs. How can we not be underdogs?”
Tortorella’s facts are accurate. IUP has lost the last two times it has played Slippery Rock, by three points each time, 45-42 in 2019 and 30-27 in 2018. In fact, the Crimson Hawks have dropped five of the past seven meetings with The Rock.
In 2019, Slippery Rock finished 13-1 and won division, conference and regional championships. Twelve of Slippery Rock’s 22 projected starters for Saturday’s game were in the starting lineup in 2019, so it’s not like this is a whole new team.
The results so far have been predictable. Slippery Rock is 6-0, having outscored its opponents 268-65. But if there’s a knock on The Rock, it’s this: The combined record of those six opponents is 9-26. Two of their opponents, Wayne State and Clarion, have yet to win a game, and two others, Lock Haven and Edinboro, have one win apiece.
Yet in the season opener, Slippery Rock probably would have lost at Wayne State if the Warriors had an effective kicker. On the last play of the game, rather than try a chip-shot field goal to send things to overtime, Wayne State ran an ill-fated play instead, and The Rock escaped with a 27-24 win.
But Slippery Rock has dominated every other game it has played, including a 75-0 demolition of Clarion on Oct. 2 and a 49-13 win over Edinboro last weekend. The Rock is averaging nearly 500 yards and 45 points per game while allowing only 227 yards and 11 points per game.
It’s hard to get much from game film as far as tendencies go when the level of competition is below par. But Tortorella said the good news is that scheme-wise, The Rock is doing the same things it was doing the last time it played IUP, in 2019.
“When you watch the film and they’re ahead 75-0, there’s not much to learn,” he said. “But if you look back, it’s a few different guys but still the same concepts as before. We can look at those films and see what they like to do when games are closer. Not much has changed.”
While all-conference receivers Henry Litwin (186 career receptions for 2,926 yards and 35 TDs) and Jermaine Wynn Jr. (174-2,501-29) are still around, the one major difference is at quarterback. Roland Rivers, who won the Harlon Hill Award in 2019, is gone, replaced by redshirt senior Andrew Koester.
Through six games, Koester has completed 111 of 174 passes for 1,863 yards and 20 touchdowns with only four interceptions. Notably, though, is that, like his team, Koester has not played in a game against a good team yet. In fact, in Koester’s eight career starts (six in 2021, two in 2018), the toughest opponent he has faced is the 2018 Shippensburg team that went 6-5 –– and beat Slippery Rock.
Otherwise, Koester has only started against Kentucky State, Wayne State, East Stroudsburg, Lock Haven, Seton Hill, Clarion and Edinboro. He’s seen mop-up duty in blowout wins in 2017 and 2019 against some other lower-tier programs, including Millersville, Seton Hill and Gannon. Koester has never played against IUP or California or Shepherd or Kutztown.
That may not be a big deal, though. The IUP defense is not a juggernaut right now. The Crimson Hawks are 15th in the PSAC in passing defense, allowing 310.2 yards per game, although it should be noted the Crimson Hawks have played four of the PSAC’s top seven passing offenses.
Yet Tortorella knows his defense must play its best game of the year if IUP has any hope of the upset. That means getting pressure on Koester, which is something IUP has not done much against the five quarterbacks it has faced so far.
“We can’t let (Koester) sit back there all day,” he said. “We can’t let him wait for a guy to come open. We can’t let him make a lot of deep throws. We better pressure him and make him get out of the pocket.”
That may prove difficult. Koester has been sacked just eight times, and the IUP defense has registered only five sacks.
Slippery Rock has not lost a regular-season home game since 2018, and it has not lost to another PSAC West team since 2017. So the Crimson Hawks know the challenge they face.
But Tortorella cautions that this is only one game on the schedule. The winner gets nothing other than a win. And for IUP, the next game is against California, which is likely to come to Indiana 7-0 next weekend.
“The way I look at this,” Tortorella said, “there are three (top) teams in the (division), and we are playing one of them on Saturday. It’s very important that we do our part and prepare well and play our best game of the year. Obviously, the winner gets a little bump, but there’s a still a lot of football left to be played.”