Among the more than 4,000 fans in the bleachers and roughly 150 players on the field, there probably wasn’t anybody more surprised that JoJo Gause won the MVP of the annual Coal Bowl than JoJo Gause.
When public address announcer Bill Otto made revealed the winner of the MVP award after IUP dispatched rival California, 17-6, at Frank Cignetti Field, Gause looked around astonishingly, looking as if he were waiting for the punchline to a joke.
But this was no joke, and neither is Gause.
A 6-foot-3 wide receiver, he caught six passes for a career-high 129 yards on Saturday, with all six of his receptions going for a first down. But until he won the MVP award, Gause said he was unaware of just how good of a day he had.
“Honestly, I didn’t know how I did until they announced I was the MVP,” he said. “I was like, ‘all right.’ I was just happy we got the win.”
Gause’s team-first attitude has been a bonus for the Crimson Hawks, in addition to his freakish athletic skills. Not only can he outleap most defensive backs for catches, he’s an outstanding run blocker and a big target in the red zone. But he also has a role with the offense as its unofficial cheerleader.
“I see myself as a leader on the offense, whether I make a play or not,” he said. “I try to be a positive voice out there. If someone is down, I try to pick them up. If I make a bad play, I hope someone will pick me up.”
Gause’s biggest play against California came at a critical point, when the Crimson Hawks were nursing a 7-6 lead early in the fourth quarter. On first down from the IUP 49-yard line, quarterback Quinton Maxwell threw deep along the sideline, and Gause went up and snared the ball, then made sure to land in bounds at the California 6.
After three cracks at the end zone, IUP settled for a 23-yard field goal from Dillon Sarka that made the lead four points. That was critical because it ensured that California would need a touchdown to win the game, a feat it had not accomplished all afternoon.
The 45-yard gain showed IUP’s resiliency in the face of adversity, after four straight wins that came with relative ease.
“We faced some adversity, different adversity than we had faced this season,” Gause said, “but we came back in the second half and got the job done.”
SMALL GUYS, BIG PLAYS: IUP coach Paul Tortorella singled out two members of the offense for their efforts Saturday: running back Malik Anderson and wide receiver Qashah Carter.
Anderson went from being the third tailback on the depth chart to the Crimson Hawks’ main ball carrier in the second half after starter Justice Evans went down with a shoulder injury and Samir Bullock proved ineffective. Anderson finished the day with team highs of 53 yards and 14 carries.
Anderson, a 5-6, 160-pound speedster, also caught three passes for 33 yards. He is second among all IUP running backs with 262 all-purpose yards.
“He came in to complement Samir, and he had some tough runs,” Tortorella said. “He did a good job in protection.”
Carter, a former walk-on who was named first-team all-PSAC last year as a kick returner, made a defensive play that saved IUP four points.
In the third quarter, after IUP had taken the lead, Maxwell threw a pass that California’s Julian Cox intercepted. Cox began rambling toward the end zone and seemed to be one or two moves away from a touchdown when Carter, who had been running a pass route downfield, caught up to him and tackled him from behind at the IUP 15.
The Vulcans ran three plays but lost 5 yards. They had to settle for a field goal that made the score 7-6.
It could have been a lot worse for the Crimson Hawks if the 5-7, 158-pound Carter had not hustled down the field and brought down the 6-3, 230-pound Cox.
“He’s a great special teams player,” Tortorella said of Carter. “He makes a lot of tackles on special teams. That’s a great job right there. And he was down the field, obviously. There’s four points saved.”
LINE DIFFERENCE: If there was a noticeable difference between the Crimson Hawks and the Vulcans on Saturday, it was in the trenches.
The IUP defensive front line was able to get pressure on California quarterback Noah Mitchell without any blitzes from the linebackers. IUP sacked Mitchell four times and pressured him a number of other times.
“They really struggled blocking our four-man rush,” Tortorella said. “We hit him pretty good. He took a couple of shots.”
And then the IUP offensive line kept Maxwell clean. He wasn’t sacked at all and was touched only a couple times. The Vulcans entered the day with 15 sacks in four games, but they never came close to getting Maxwell.
“I thought our offensive line did a good job,” Tortorella said. “(The Vulcans) throw a lot of different movement at you.”
INJURY UPDATE: The Crimson Hawks played without starting defensive tackle Raunya Mitchell, and Tortorella said Mitchell’s season is in jeopardy.
Mitchell broke his forearm during practice on Wednesday, and he will miss at least a month. Tortorella said that in four weeks, Mitchell will be re-evaluated, but “he may be out the rest of the year,” Tortorella said.
Mitchell was suspended for last week’s game at Mercyhurst for a violation of team rules,
Evans, the Crimson Hawks’ leading rusher, suffered a shoulder injury in the first half and did not return. Tortorella said he would be evaluated this week, but a prognosis wasn’t known.
Maxwell left the game after throwing the interception to Cox when he collided with a player while trying to make a tackle. Tortorella said Maxwell was checked out for a concussion, but he passed the tests and was allowed to go back into the game, where he led the Crimson Hawks to the win.
Also, long snapper Drew Stout left the game in the third quarter with what Tortorella said was an abdomen injury after being hit by a California defender on an extra-point kick.