Another playoff game against Shepherd; another heartbreaker for the IUP Crimson Hawks.
Shepherd’s Tyson Bagent threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Devin Phelps with 11 seconds left to play, lifting the Rams to a shocking 31-27 win over IUP on Saturday in a first-round NCAA Division II playoff game at Frank Cignetti Field.
The crushing part is that IUP had taken a 27-24 lead 89 seconds earlier, on a 1-yard run by Justice Evans. But the Crimson Hawks couldn’t make a defensive stand to win the game, as Shepherd needed only 83 seconds and eight plays to drive 84 yards for the win, ending IUP’s season in disappointment.
“A play here and a play there determines the game,” said IUP head coach Paul Tortorella. “That’s what it came down to. I thought we had done enough in the second half to win it. We had the momentum and we needed to make one play on defense, but we didn’t.”
The loss was IUP’s fourth in its five games against the Rams, with all of the meetings happening in the playoffs. Shepherd’s four all-time wins vs. IUP have come by a total of 18 points.
“We lost to a good team,” said IUP quarterback Quinton Maxwell, who passed for 312 yards and two touchdowns. “We played a good game, (but) it sucks to go out this way. It’s going to sting.”
IUP’s season ends with a 10-2 record and a third playoff berth in the past four years.
But that doesn’t ease the pain of losing a game the Crimson Hawks had fought hard to gain control of, especially when the Rams moved downfield effortlessly for the winning score.
“We played a defense that we’ve played a lot,” IUP linebacker Damon Lloyd said of the 3-3-5 scheme. “We ran the right coverage to stop that last play, (but) they just made a play. It came down to the defense at the end the game. I mean it sucks to go out like that, but that’s football.”
The IUP defense got burned for a season-high 516 total yards, but most of that (424) came on Shepherd’s five scoring drives, which covered 99, 98, 75, 68 and 84 yards. Those long drives were extended by third-down conversions, of which the Rams were 7-for-11.
“The entire season we’ve had tremendous adversity,” said Shepherd coach Ernie McCool. “So, when we were headed in adversity today, our kids were able to handle it, didn’t flinch and continued to battle.”
“When you do get them into third down, you have to get off the field,” Tortorella said. “Obviously when they’ve got long drives like that, they did have some big plays, but they converted some third downs.”
Shepherd (10-2) led most of the way, but the Crimson Hawks rallied from a 14-point deficit to take the lead when Evans scored, capping a 16-play, 75-yard drive that took almost eight minutes off the clock.
But just as IUP had been slow and methodic in moving downfield, the Rams marched for the winning score quickly and deliberately, with Bagent — who finished with 389 passing yards — completing passes of 18, 19 and 13 yards to get into IUP territory.
The Crimson Hawks held strong on back-to-back plays, putting Shepherd into a third-and-10 at the IUP 34-yard line. Bagent stepped up in the pocket and found running back Deonte Glover open for an 11-yard gain that gave the Rams a first down.
Tortorella and the IUP sideline erupted after the pass was thrown, arguing Bagent was beyond the line of scrimmage, but no penalty flag was thrown.
“You’d have to look at the video,” Tortorella said. “Maybe he was (over the line), maybe he wasn’t. If he wasn’t, that’s a great (non) call. If he was … no comment.”
On the next play, Bagent lofted a pass over the IUP defense that fell into the Phelps’ wide-open arms in the back of the end zone for the winning touchdown. Phelps was so open because IUP freshman safety Javonte Haynes took a few too many steps toward the line of scrimmage, and Phelps raced past him.
“I don’t know why the safety came down,” Bagent said, “but he did and (Phelps) beat him over top.”
Haynes was in the game because of an ankle injury to starter Harrison Dreher, who missed the entire second half.
IUP had one last gasp, but Maxwell was sacked while the Crimson Hawks were trying to set up a Hail Mary, and the clock ran out.
“It’s a bitter pill to swallow,” Tortorella said. “But I’m proud of my team. I thought they gave great effort, nothing to be ashamed of.”
After IUP tied the score at 7-7 midway through the second quarter, Shepherd went ahead on Dylan Brewer’s 2-yard touchdown catch. Then on the first series of the second half, Brewer’s 52-yard touchdown catch from Bagent put the Rams ahead 21-7.
It was at that point that IUP probably could have folded, but Tortorella is proud that the Crimson Hawks did not. Instead, they went back to work, and Duane Brown capped an 82-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run, cutting the deficit to seven.
IUP forced a three-and-out punt, and four minutes later, Maxwell hit JoJo Gause for a 3-yard touchdown pass, but the snap was low on Dillon Sarka’s extra-point try, and the kick was wide left, making the score 21-20.
Shepherd made the lead four points on a short field goal, leaving IUP nine and a half minutes to work with. The Crimson Hawks marched downfield, converting three third downs and one fourth down, with Maxwell’s 31-yard connection with Brown putting the ball at the Shepherd 1 with 1:50 left to play. Evans scored on the next play, igniting the home crowd and giving IUP reason to think this day would end with a comeback win for the ages.
But it wasn’t meant to be.
Four quick completions moved the ball to the IUP 23, and Bagent and Phelps did the rest, breaking IUP’s hearts once again.
“It was a great football game,” Tortorella said. “It came down to one or two plays. They had the ball last. Maybe if we have the ball last, we win. It could’ve gone either way, but they played a great game.”
NOTES: Maxwell’s final completion of the day, the 31-yard pass to Brown, gave him 3,129 passing yards this season, breaking Andrew Krewtatch’s 2007 school record by 29. His 34 touchdown passes are two short of the record, which Brian Eyerman set in 2002. … Maxwell teamed with backup Jalen Reese to set IUP team single-season records for passing yards (3,621) and passing touchdowns (41). … Lloyd led IUP with 11 tackles. The IUP defense did not have a sack for the first time all season. … Shepherd will visit top-ranked Slippery Rock (11-0) next weekend in the second round.