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The Crimson Hawks were flying high, but they experienced a rocky landing on the gridiron Saturday.
Any hopes of Indiana University of Pennsylvania going undefeated were forcefully squashed in Week 6 against Slippery Rock, its Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference rival.
Struggling to mirror the defensive dominance and big-play offense that helped lead them to a 5-0 start, the Hawks were finally overcome, dropping an ugly 42-16 decision at the hands of The Rock.
Coming into the game, Slippery Rock figured to pose a threat against IUP – perhaps the biggest challenge remaining on the team’s regular season schedule. But senior quarterback Nigel Barksdale did more than enough to solidify himself as one of Division II’s top signal-callers, torching the Crimson Hawks’ typically stout defense for 425 yards and two touchdowns through the air.
Barksdale seemed to move against the Hawks at will for much of Saturday’s rivalry contest.
Starting safety Eric J. Williams (junior, criminology) notched his fourth interception of the year late in the game, but otherwise, IUP’s secondary appeared to be playing catch-up against Slippery Rock’s aerial attack, which ranks in the nation’s top five units.
Wideout John Schademan hauled in 170 yards along with both of Barksdale’s touchdown passes for The Rock, while Ken Amos, Robert Joyce and Jaimire Dutrieuille each had more than 50 receiving yards.
“Football is a game of adjustments,” cornerback Jeremiah McPhearson (sophomore, criminology) said. “We got outplayed on the field and out-schemed in the box. Our coaches are seasoned and will get us back on the right path. Personally, I have to make plays like I am capable of doing.”
In contrast, IUP’s offense lacked its usual explosiveness and sputtered throughout the matchup, falling behind early and struggling to keep itself in contention. Quarterback Mike Box (senior, psychology) frequently found wideout Terrill Barnes (senior, marketing) for yet another 100-yard game, and Pitt transfer Drew Carswell (junior, health and physical education) also hauled in more than 100 yards in his first game as a starter, but the offense as a whole appeared far from dangerous against The Rock, mustering just 337 total yards as opposed to Slippery Rock’s 676.
Starting running back De’Antwan Williams (senior, sociology) was also uncharacteristically bottled up, managing just 34 yards on 13 carries against The Rock’s stony defense. Transfer Erik Finklea (senior, health and physical education) was again limited with just two carries, while complement Israel Green (freshman, computer science) was held to 28 yards.
In all, IUP produced only 59 yards on the ground, while Slippery Rock picked up 227 rushing yards.
Williams said before Saturday’s showdown that IUP would “be ready” for such a crucial rivalry battle, but the Hawks’ struggles on offense hardly helped the team’s chances, especially when the defense also had evident troubles.
From the start of Saturday’s contest, it was clear that Slippery Rock had an edge in momentum. Whereas IUP strung together a handful of short-lasting drives, The Rock quickly got into a rhythm of clock-eating series, spreading the ball around and steadily churning through the Crimson Hawks’ defense, which came into the game ranked atop Division II.
By the end of the game, punter Matt Spegal was called upon eight times for IUP, and of course three turnovers didn’t help the cause.
“We just need to improve on our fundamentals,” said linebacker Carl Fleming (senior, criminology), who led IUP with 13 total tackles and had his first sack of the season.
A 38-yard scoring strike from Barksdale to Schademan put Slippery Rock up 14-0 in the second quarter before two straight touchdown runs by former IUP back Teddy Blakeman extended the lead.
A 44-yard field goal by Brett Ullman (junior, management) finally got the Hawks on the board near halftime, but two more scores by The Rock in the third quarter all but wrapped up IUP’s ugly performance. With continued success on offense, Slippery Rock held onto the ball and pushed its lead to 38 points thanks to touchdowns from Barksdale (rushing) and Schademan (receiving).
IUP did cut Slippery Rock’s lead down in the final quarter, with Barnes hauling in a 23-yard touchdown pass from Box and Williams getting the ball into the end zone on a 1-yard run, but it was simply a case of “too little, too late.”
Slippery Rock prevented IUP from compeleting a two-point conversion after Williams’ touchdown run and also halted one of the Hawks’ second-half drives when Box was intercepted for the seventh time this season.
IUP’s loss Saturday was the first by the team in the regular season since Sept. 22, 2012, when the Hawks suffered a close defeat at the hands of California University of Pennsylvania.
Ranked seventh by the American Football Coaches Association coming into the game, the Crimson Hawks will look to return to the win column in Week 8 when Edinboro University (3-3) comes to town Saturday at Frank Cignetti Field at George P. Miller Stadium.