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Any time a football team captures a championship or advances in the postseason, there are high expectations the next year.
Oftentimes, the true test of a team’s success is how well it is able to serve up an encore, and that’s the issue standing before the 2013 Crimson Hawks, who have set the bar high in hopes of topping a deep playoff run the year before.
Reaching the playoffs for the 15th time in school history last year, Indiana University of Pennsylvania finished with a 12-2 record under Head Coach Curt Cignetti. They captured the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference title before moving all the way to the regional championship.
With a defense ranked at the top of Division II as well as an explosive offense featuring two 1,000-yard rushers, IUP closed its season with a tough loss to Winston-Salem State University.
Having come so close to the national championship, the Hawks are aiming to finish what they started in 2012 and come into the new season as true contenders – a season that will kick off Sept. 7 against Southern Connecticut State University.
“Last year is in the past; we’re focused on this season and this team,” Cignetti said.
IUP is a favorite to win the PSAC West division according to the preseason coaches poll. The team is set to take the field with 16 returning starters, one of whom is quarterback Mike Box (redshirt senior, psychology), who claims he will take the team “to the next level” in his first year as the uncontested leader of the offense.
Box has plenty of importance as the de facto captain of the team, especially now that the backfield is without All- American honoree Harvie Tuck, who graduated last year having established himself as second on the school’s all-time rushing list.
The team might also have to make do without De’Antwan Williams (senior, sports administration), Tuck’s primary complement on the ground who is awaiting word from the National Collegiate Athletic Association about a final season of eligibility.
Williams, who posted 1,325 yards on the ground as a big play threat last year, is participating in all of IUP’s preseason activities, so there’s still reason for fans to have hope of his return.
Regardless of Williams’ status, Montay Green (sophomore, accounting) is expected to see an increase in reps at running back, perhaps in addition to Miami University transfer Erik Finklea (redshirt senior, health and physical education).
Box, the former University of Connecticut signal-caller, seems to have the weapons at his disposal for a potentially dominant season. Both of the Hawks’ regular starters at wide receiver, Pat Brewer (senior, sports administration) and Terrill Barnes (senior, sports administration), combined to catch 63 passes for 1,131 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The lineup also features a new addition in converted tight end Drew Carswell (redshirt junior, criminology), who transferred this year from the Pittsburgh Panthers.
Box will be bolstered by a sturdy offensive line, which returns three of its starters from a dominant 2012 campaign when the unit ranked among the region’s best. Although the team lost Dan Matha, who received a tryout with the Cincinnati Bengals in May, left tackle Byron Dovales (senior, exercise science), left guard Nick Carnicella (senior, human resources management) and right guard Mike Charmo (senior, biology-environmental health) are all slated to return along with junior reserve Matthew Sasson (junior, english education).
This powerful offense will be complemented with perhaps an even more impressive defense. The Crimson Hawks defense dominated Division II last season and is arguably the primary source of promise for the Hawks. The loss of playmaking safety Johnny Franco to graduation will hurt in the secondary, but there are a handful of returning starters determined to improve on last year’s major accomplishments.
Headlining the defense, which limited opponents to 10 points or less on seven occasions and ranked first in the nation in scoring, is the linebacker pairing of Carl Fleming (senior, sociology) and Alexander Berdahl (senior, criminology), who had a combined 191 tackles and five interceptions in 2012.
Fleming, a transfer from the University of Pittsburgh, echoed the thoughts of his teammates by listing the No. 1 goal for this season as “winning it all.”
Hoping to replace the physical intensity of former defensive tackle Carl Thornton along the defensive line, IUP is set to feature returning starters Shane Meisner (senior, criminology) and Akeem Smith (senior, communications media) in the trenches. Meisner, who led Hawks defensive ends last year with eight sacks, and Smith, who notched 10 tackles for loss in the middle of the line, will be joined by highly anticipated pass rushing prospect Alkwan Williams (freshman, health and human services), a transfer from Temple University.
The defensive backfield will look strikingly different due to the departure of Franco and starting cornerback Marvens Toussaint, but there appears to be more than enough talent to make up for the changes. Jerell McFadden (redshirt junior, physical education) is slated to retain a first-string role after starting 10 games last year, while Terrell Holloway (senior, sports administration) and Chris Brown (senior, special education) could have a big impact after combining for 88 tackles and seven pass deflections. Another player to keep an eye on in the secondary is junior Eric Williams (redshirt junior, criminology), who appeared in all 13 games for Pitt in 2012 before transferring along with Carswell.
On special teams, the Hawks have the benefit of familiarity with placekicker Brett Ullman (junior, business management), whose 19 field goals last year were the highest single season total in school history. With dual quarterback/punter Pat Smith graduated, Matt Spegal (sophomore, geology) is expected to man the punting duties after averaging over 38 yards per attempt in limited work last season.
After their season opener against Southern Connecticut State University, the Crimson Hawks will host the Hall of Fame Game against Cheyney University at George P. Miller Stadium.
Other notable games include a rematch with rival California University in the Coal Bowl Alumni Game on Sept. 28, and a Homecoming matchup with Millersville University Oct. 5 and the regular season finale against Shippensburg University Nov. 6.