It simply was not IUP’s day.
The IUP football team came up short in the Super Region One championship against Shepherd, falling 48-13 on Saturday in a surprisingly lopsided showcase at Miller Stadium.
It seemed like everything that could go against the Crimson Hawks, did. Unfortunate penalties that canceled out positive plays. Untimely turnovers that allowed the Rams lead to grow beyond IUP’s reach. A raging wind which the Hawks had to deal with in the second and third quarters.
After handing Shepherd its first loss of the season back on Nov. 12 in the PSAC Championship game, IUP was unable to replicate some of the things it did so well in the previous matchup. The Rams put up 48 straight points, rushed for 141 yards and more significantly, held the Hawks to just 39 yards on 36 attempts rushing – a piddly 1.05 yard-per-carry average. Whereas in the PSAC Championship, Shepherd totaled 21 points, ran for just 53 yards and gave up a staggering 184 rushing yards to IUP.
“Disappointing finish for us. The game got away,” said IUP coach Paul Tortorella. “We just got behind and things started to snowball on us.”
The 35-point loss was the largest of the Tortorella head-coaching era and the largest since the Hawks suffered a 44-7 loss to Kutztown in 2014.
The Hawks got off to a fine start, forcing the Rams to punt after three plays, and the Crimson Hawks marched 53 yards in nine plays on their first offensive drive to draw first blood. Cole Laney (redshirt sophomore) was the recipient of an 18-yard touchdown grab followed by a successful extra-point attempt which put IUP up 7-0 at the 8:35 mark of the first quarter.
“It's always great to get off to a hot start and be able to drive down the field and get points,” said quarterback Mak Sexton (graduate student), who threw for 210 yards and two touchdowns. “It just didn't translate to the rest of the game.”
Not much good would follow for the Crimson Hawks, on both offense and defense.
Rodney Dorsey scored on a 71-yard catch-and-run touchdown pass from Tyson Bagent on the ensuing Shepherd possession, knotting the game at seven. It was the second-longest touchdown IUP’s defense had given up all season and came on a third-and-six to a wide-open Rams receiver.
“We blew a coverage on third down that led to a big play and a touchdown,” said Tortorella. “We didn't do that the first time we played them; I think they only had two passes over 20 yards.”
The start of the second quarter was the real turning point of the game. In college football, the direction in which you move the ball doesn’t always necessarily have a major impact on the play, but on Saturday it did.
The wind was felt throughout the game and certainly had an effect on the Crimson Hawks entire team.
“I knew how bad the wind was,” said Tortorella. “I realized the wind was going to be a factor and when we got out of the first quarter and the score was 7-7, I was concerned.”
For the first 15 minutes, IUP moved with the wind, but for the 30 minutes of game time which followed, the Hawks had to face the wind, which had ramifications on the pass game, the kicking game and ultimately the field position battle.
In the first quarter, IUP’s average drive start was about midfield, while Shepherd’s average start was about their own 23-yard line. Flip to the second and third, the Hawks average start of possession was their own 20 while the Rams average start came at around the IUP 48.
“I think we punted the ball three times into the wind for like 32 yards,” said Tortorella. “The wind was really bad and we knew that. Then you get behind and then you're playing uphill the rest of the game.”
In the second and third quarters, IUP had nine offensive possessions. Whether it was turnovers, penalties or lack of execution, the Hawks struggled to find any sustainability.
The Hawks turned the ball over four times during said timeframe -- two turnovers on downs, one lost fumble and an interception which was returned 28 yards for a touchdown by Klayton Batten of Shepherd. Two of the nine drives resulted in negative yardage, and the Hawks longest possession lasted just 3:10 of gameplay.
“Throwing (the ball) down the field into the wind, you really have no idea where it's going to end up,” said Sexton. “We didn't make the most out of when we had the wind and didn't do very much while we didn't.
“The second and third quarter we were kind of getting behind the sticks on first and second down, and were consistently in a third and long, third and medium. It's hard to get first downs facing third and medium, third and long.”
Meanwhile, Shepherd took full advantage of the weather. From 8:43 of the second quarter to 4:25 of the third quarter, the Rams scored on five consecutive drives. Shepherd moved quickly and efficiently with the lengthiest drive only taking 3:08 off the game clock – partially due to the short fields. Receiving touchdowns included one by Cameron Dorner for 18 yards, Brian Walker for 17 yards and Ronnie Brown for another 17-yard score, respectively. Brown also rushed for two touchdowns of 4 and 2 yards.
“We had chances to make plays on defense, on third down we had chances to sack the quarterback [Bagent] and we weren't able to do it. They took advantage of the second chances,” said linebacker Drew Dinunzio-Biss (redshirt sophomore, safety science). “There was definitely a big shift in momentum and energy and we spent the rest of the game trying to get it back.”
While IUP was trying to stay in the game, the Hawks committed six penalties for a total of 68 yards. Three of the six were unsportsmanlike conduct fouls which cost 15 yards each and were examples of the players showing their frustration with how the game was going.
At the start of the fourth quarter when IUP got the wind back, it was too little, too late. By then, the deficit had grown to 42-7 and any chance of a miraculous comeback was completely diminished by Batten’s pick-six with 14:12 left to play, pushing the deficit to 48-7.
Duane Brown (redshirt senior, sports administration) scored his 43rd career touchdown – which ranks second in IUP history – connecting with Sexton on a 3-yard grab with 7:55 left in the fourth.
When all was said and done, the Hawks walked off the field with their 2022 campaign finished, their largest loss in eight years and their first and only home loss of the season.
IUP ultimately fell short of the ultimate goal – National Championship – but there are still things to be proud of.
“This team won a PSAC Championship, won 10 games,” said Tortorella. “We had a lot of injuries the first four weeks of the season, we lost two of our top five players for the season and our guys stepped up, it was next man up and we showed a lot of resiliency.”
“I told (the team), this game shouldn't define them. They've won a lot of games, won the PSAC and been great ambassadors for the university.”
The Crimson Hawks finished in the NCAA Division II football playoffs for the 20th time in school history and came a win shy of making the school’s eighth national semifinals appearance.
IUP will open up the 2023 season on Sept. 9 of next year against East Stroudsburg at George P. Miller Stadium.