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A showdown away from home against Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference rival Slippery Rock University this week is perhaps the biggest obstacle the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Crimson Hawks will face in their quest to stay undefeated for the remainder of the year.
IUP has won each of its five games on the football field to start the season, and a 62-3 blowout of Millersville last Saturday seemingly has the team at its peak.
IUP cruised past The Rock in 2012, but the history between the two sides always seems to result in an emotional and unpredictable battle.
The fact that Slippery Rock has ascended in the ranks this season, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, means the rivalry clash on Saturday could be a true test of which team is more well-rounded for a playoff run, especially because of the Crimson Hawks’ defensive success thus far.
“We’re just going to go out and do what we do,” running back Erik Finklea (senior, health and physical education) said. “We aren’t going to try to trick them or do anything different. We know what we need to do, and we plan to get that done.”
Slippery Rock is ranked fourth in all of Division II football in terms of total offense, having scored at least 58 points in three of their five games thus far.
Arguably the biggest reason Slippery Rock has catapulted to an astounding offensive start is the emergence of quarterback Nigel Barksdale, who has already eclipsed his passing yards and touchdown totals from last season. The former junior college signal-caller has been a dual threat in his second and final year with The Rock, throwing for 1,765 yards (good for fifth in the country) and 18 touchdowns to go along with just five interceptions, as well as 108 rushing yards and a score on the ground.
Barksdale’s deep receiving corps is something else to keep an eye on as the Crimson Hawks attempt to stay in the win column against their rivals. John Schademan is among the top five wideouts in Division II with an average of 131 yards per game, while others (like Jaimire Dutrieuille and LaQuinn Stephens-Howling) figure to have a big presence against IUP’s similarly talented secondary on Saturday.
The Crimson Hawks seem to have just the antidote for Slippery Rock’s high-octane offense: their outstanding defense. Just as they shut down a top-ranked unit in Shippensburg to conclude the 2012 regular season, the Hawks are expected to go all out on defense where they have earned the No. 1 ranking in the country thanks to dominant showings at almost every position and an evidently increasing sense of chemistry.
Starting safeties Marco Pecora (senior, health and physical education) and Eric J. Williams (junior, criminology), both of whom transferred to IUP before the season, have combined for six interceptions through five weeks, and at least six total players have recorded one pick for the Hawks.
Although more interceptions might not be necessary to stop Slippery Rock, takeaways could play a vital factor in the Week 6 matchup, especially in crucial moments such as in the red zone.
Up front, Shane Meisner (junior, criminology) and Michael Larrow (senior, journalism) have helped provide pressure, while IUP’s deep linebacker corps has stepped up in different ways each week. Among the standouts who could be an X factor in Saturday’s matchup is Pitt transfer Carl Fleming (senior, criminology), who leads the team in tackles.
“We focus on ‘doing your job,’” Fleming said. “That’s what we do at practice every day, all to be prepared for our opponent.”
Of course, just as important for the Crimson Hawks could be keeping themselves on the field and gaining momentum.
Quarterback Mike Box (senior, psychology) will look to break his streak of games with an interception but could be on the verge of an upswing after tossing three touchdowns against Millersville last week, while the plethora of running backs behind Box could continue to stand out as the heart of the Hawks’ high-scoring offense.
Former Rutgers back De’Antwan Williams (senior, sociology) has headed the ground attack with 481 yards and six touchdowns as the starter, but Finklea has been a significant contributor as well with 213 yards and four scores.
Behind the duo on the depth chart, newcomers Israel Green (freshman, computer science) and Patrick Ferguson (freshman, health and physical education) have also chipped in, combining for 191 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Slippery Rock has given up at least 34 points in four of its five games thus far so it’s not out of the question to anticipate a potential shootout, and if the contest does turn into a back-and-forth battle, the Crimson Hawks’ deep rotation in the backfield could ultimately wear down The Rock.
“This is a big rivalry, so we will be ready to play,” Williams said. “We’ll play our game and execute the game plan, same as every week.”