On a rainy, windy Saturday at George P. Miller Stadium, the IUP football team defeated Shepherd 24-21, taking home the Hawks 19th PSAC championship in school history and their first since 2017.
“It was great to get the win today,” said quarterback Mak Sexton (graduate student) “It's great to see all the seniors be able to get a win in their last year.”
With 1:41 remaining on the clock in the fourth quarter, the Crimson Hawks had the ball at the Shepherd 49-yard line. On a second-and-8, the Rams were out of timeouts, and a first down for IUP would all but ice the game.
Adam Houser (redshirt sophomore, finance) got the ball on a handoff, broke a tackle and broke free for what was a sure-fire touchdown until he slid down at Shepherd’s 8-yard line. Rather than take the ball all the way and add to his stats – which would have put the Hawks ahead by 10 but would have also given the potent Rams offense the ball back – he gave himself up, allowing IUP to kneel out the clock out and put the stamp on the Hawks championship performance.
“I knew after they called their last time out that a first down would end the game,” said Houser, who ran for 144 yards. “There was no point in scoring and giving them the ball back.”
“If we want to win, let's win with the ball in our hands.”
One of the reasons Houser was in the backfield at that time was because Hawks starting running back Dayjure Stewart (redshirt sophomore, communications media) left the game late in the first quarter due to injury.
Duane Brown (redshirt senior, sports administration), who leads IUP in all receiving categories, unexpectedly sat out the game due to a knee sprain. Therefore, the Hawks had to battle without two of their top offensive contributors.
In the absence of Brown and Stewart, Sexton elevated his play for the Hawks, taking home PSAC championship game MVP honors in the process. Sexton threw for three touchdowns and 169 yards, but it was his command of the offense which really helped IUP overcome some of the injuries.
“He played deep, he managed the game tremendously,” said IUP coach Paul Tortorella. “He got us in all the right sets.”
The way IUP came out and started set the tone against Shepherd, setting up the Hawks for what the rest of the game would look like.
After winning the coin toss and deferring to the second half, IUP forced the Rams to three-and-out on their opening drive. The Hawks followed that up with a 13-play, 65 yard touchdown drive which concluded with a 10-yard touchdown pass from Sexton to Stewart. The drive took more than six minutes off the clock and gave IUP an early 7-0 lead, which was crucial for the Hawks’ success.
“You don't want to get behind a team that scores a lot because they’ll just keep scoring,” said Tortorella. “It seemed like up until the very end, we always had a two-score lead.”
On the following possession, Shepherd drove the ball into IUP territory and was threatening to score. The drive was halted, however, when Darius Bruce (sophomore, communications media) came up with an interception at the IUP 11-yard line.
After the turnover, IUP and the Rams traded punts until the Hawks added to their lead when Nick Andrasi (freshman, exercise science) drilled a 33-yard field goal which capped off an eight-play, 55-yard drive and gave the Hawks a 10-0 advantage with 7:25 to play in the second quarter.
It wasn’t until Shepherd’s fourth drive that the Rams put points on the board. After a 48-yard punt return from Ronnie Brown of the Rams, Shepherd only had to go 37 yards for the score as Rodney Dorsey caught a 6-yard touchdown pass with 4:25 remaining in the first half.
The Rams, who had averaged 45.3 points per game – second in the country – coming into the matchup, were held to a season low in points by IUP. The Hawks defense made it hard on Shepherd’s star quarterback Tyson Bagent all game. Bagent had to work for every yard, and while his stat line of 304 passing yards and two touchdowns may seem impressive, those numbers are minor to what he’s done at times this season.
Though the Hawks failed to register a sack, IUP’s pass rush forced Bagent to scramble on a number of plays and attempt difficult throws on the run.
“We did as good a job as we could without getting a sack,” said Tortorella. “They didn't have a lot of catches over 20 yards and even on their short passes, we tackled well in the open field.”
The Hawks opened the second half with a long, well-executed 12-play drive for 93 yards. The possession culminated with Daniel Deabner (redshirt sophomore, finance and economics) going up and grabbing a 14-yard touchdown pass, stretching IUP’s lead back to ten points, 17-7.
IUP’s defense also came up with two interceptions on the day, the one by Bruce in the first quarter and another by Kalen Frazier (freshman, business), who picked off Bagent at a critical time in the third quarter.
Shepherd was driving on the Hawks late in the third. On the eighth play of the drive, Bagent threw a pass which tipped off the hands of a Rams’ receiver and into the hands of Frazier. Frazier initially juggled the ball but was able to reel it in and returned it from IUP’s 2-yard line all the way down to the Shepherd’s 31-yard line.
“[Darius] Bruce played great defense and the ball just popped up,” said Frazier. “It felt like it was in slow motion. It was on the tip of my fingers and I was just trying to hold it.”
Six plays later, Cole Laney (redshirt sophomore) caught a play action pass from the 2-yard line in the corner of the end zone, giving the Crimson Hawks a 24-7 lead in the final minute of the third quarter.
The interception by Frazier stopped Shepherd from a possible score and led to a touchdown for IUP, a potential 14-point swing which put the Hawks in the driver’s seat. IUP’s defense came up with two timely turnovers which snatched momentum from the Rams before they had a chance to grab it.
“This week in practice we really just worked on being our best version of ourselves,” said Frazier. “We did that all week and we were just so locked into that and it all paid off.”
While the Hawks entered the fourth quarter with a seemingly comfortable 24-7 lead, the Rams didn’t go down without a fight.
After Ronnie Brown rushed for a 1-yard touchdown with 12:06 remaining in the fourth quarter, IUP’s lead was cut to 24-14.
After the Hawks offense stalled, Shepherd once again had possession with IUP clinging to a 10-point lead. The Rams quickly found themselves facing a fourth-and-2 from their own 16. Bagent threw the ball on fourth down and his pass went through the hands of Max Fisher – one of multiple drops by Shepherd’s receivers, perhaps due to the rainy conditions.
IUP took over at Shepherd’s 16-yard line with 6:11 to play and similarly to the Rams, found itself facing a fourth-and-2. The Hawks decided to forgo the field goal attempt, which would have put them ahead by 13 points and instead tried to convert the first down. The gamble didn’t pay off, as Sexton’s pass was overthrown in the back of the end zone, intended for Laney.
“My feeling was a field goal really is not going to do anything for us,” said Tortorella. “I'd rather us go for it and them stop us up ten with the ball on their 7-yard line rather than kick a field goal, go up 13 and kick off to Ronnie Brown.”
With 4:23 remaining on the clock and at their own 8-yard line, the Rams marched down the field one last time. Converting two third downs, EJ Morgan finished it off with a 2-yard touchdown grab with 1:46 remaining. IUP’s lead was down to just three at 24-21.
The Hawks recovered the ensuing onside kick with 1:46 remaining, all but sealing the win.
The victory did not come easy, and on top of that the score may have gotten closer than the Hawks wanted. But, in the end all that mattered to them was what the scoreboard said when the clock hit zero.
“We just look for that column on the left of the scoreboard,” said Tortorella. “It doesn't matter how you win or how much you win by. What matters is that we did everything we had to do to win the game.”
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