If Paul Tortorella were a few years older, he might have been spending some time this week packing up his office, saying goodbye to his players and staff and saying hello to retirement.
Instead, he sat down and rehashed the most painful loss of his career.
“My last two or three days,” Tortorella said, “have been misery.”
Four days ago, Tortorella’s IUP Crimson Hawks got bounced out of the first round of the NCAA Division II playoffs by Shepherd (W.Va.). IUP trailed most of the game and took the lead late in the fourth quarter, only to watch the Rams race down the field and score the winning touchdown with 11 seconds left for a 31-27 victory.
Tortorella, who has been at IUP since 1995 and was a Division I assistant for nine seasons before that, has been on the wrong end of scores plenty of times, but he said none made him feel as bad as this one.
“I’ve been sick,” he said. “I just can’t believe it.”
How sick? Well, the 56-year-old Tortorella conceded that if it was five or six years down the road, he’d think long and hard about walking away from the job he loves.
“I’ll be honest,” he said. “If I was older, I might retire after this one. Seriously. It’s been that hard.”
Tortorella doesn’t want you to feel bad for him. It was a football game and nothing more. But he earnestly believes his team lost a game it had every right to win. It just made a few mistakes that cost it a chance to advance in the playoffs, and he can’t figure out why they happened.
The biggest miscue came at the end of the game.
With IUP leading 27-24, the Rams were at the IUP 23-yard line and 18 seconds were on the clock. The Crimson Hawks were in a 3-3-5 prevent defense with the mission of not allowing a touchdown. If Shepherd wanted to kick a field goal and go to overtime, the Crimson Hawks would have been OK with that, knowing the momentum had shifted in their favor after they rallied from a 14-point deficit to take a three-point lead.
“It’s a prevent defense,” Tortorella said. “You shouldn’t get beat on it. Once they got to the 35 (yard line), we were conceding the field goal. If we were trying to stop the field goal, we wouldn’t have played that defense. We’d have played something more aggressive. We were just trying to stop the deep ball and let them kick the field goal and then we’ll be happy to go to overtime because they hadn’t stopped us.”
Defensive coordinator Jim Smith sent down the call for the coverage scheme, with the Crimson Hawks to sit back in a zone, splitting the field into thirds. When Shepherd quarterback Tyson Bagent dropped back, he noticed that IUP free safety Mike Nash, who was supposed to line up on the hash mark corresponding to the wide side of the field, had stayed on the boundary side and had not backpedaled to cover the deep middle third of the field.
Shepherd split end Devin Phelps ran a post route over the middle and then cut toward the sideline, racing right past Nash and into the end zone, where he caught Bagent’s pass for the winning touchdown.
Nash’s slight miscue — not cornerback Javon Haynes’ as it was originally reported — was all the Rams needed to win the game and end IUP’s season. But why Nash did it is a mystery Tortorella hasn’t solved.
“There’s not one thing to make him do that,” he said.
One thing Tortorella does know is that he doesn’t think Smith should have called for a different coverage scheme than the one IUP used. Had the Crimson Hawks followed the plan, it’s highly likely the Rams would have had to settle for a field goal try to force overtime, if they didn’t run out of time all together.
“If we had to do it all over again,” he said, “all of us, myself and the defensive coaches, said that we don’t know what else we could have done differently.”
That’s why four days later the loss still stings. And for Tortorella, the pain is the worst he’s ever had to go through.
“When you’re a coordinator, you’re really just in charge of one side of a ball,” he said. “But you know, when you’re the head coach you take the blame for it, which comes with the territory.”
He said this loss was more difficult to swallow than the one to West Florida in 2017 in the semifinals, when IUP was undefeated, ranked No. 1 in the country and one win away from playing in the national championship game. That day, IUP trailed 24-0 in the third quarter before rallying and eventually falling, 27-17.
“West Florida, we were one game away, but you know, we didn’t play good enough in the first half to win that game,” he said. “We got in too big of a hole. If we played them 10 times, we’d probably go 5-5. I mean, in 10 games against Shepherd, we beat them seven or eight times.”
GOOD CALL: After Saturday’s loss, Tortorella was steaming about a non-call on the play before the winning touchdown, when he believed Bagent was over the line of scrimmage when he threw a pass to running back Deonte Glover for 11 yards to convert a third-and-10.
But after seeing replays of the video, Tortorella said the officials were correct.
“He landed past the line of scrimmage,” he said, “but it looks like he was behind it when he let (the ball) go.”
In fact, Tortorella said the game was called well enough that he thought the officials should know it.
“I couldn’t ask for a better game,” he said. “I emailed the officials and told them they did a great job.”
NOW WHAT?: The coaching staff will get a short rest before hitting the road for recruiting season.
“We need to pump the brakes until after Thanksgiving,” Tortorella said. “We all need a little bit of rest and to get away for a little bit. Then we start recruiting next week.”
Tortorella and his staff will be on the road next week scouring the region for high school talent at pretty much every position. They’ll also be looking for possible mid-year transfers who can join the team in January and participate in spring drills.
With the departure of Quinton Maxwell, who set numerous passing records in his one season at IUP, are the Crimson Hawks in the market for a quarterback?
“After being in this job for a few years I have realized that you’re always in the market for a quarterback,” Tortorella said.