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The Crimson Hawks have lost just one of their six games on the football field this season, but their first defeat came in an ugly showing against rival Slippery Rock University on Saturday.
Slipping from No. 7 to No. 22 on the American Football Coaches Association poll after its loss, Indiana University of Pennsylvania will look to get back on track against Edinboro University this week, but moving forward, is it right to question whether IUP is as good as its record indicates?
The obvious and only answer is yes.
The Hawks lost to California University of Pennsylvania early last season and still proceeded to advance to the semifinals of the NCAA playoffs, but a 42-16 defeat against The Rock Saturday in which nothing seemed to go right for IUP has suddenly thrust the team into the spotlight and not in a good way.
Coming into their Week 6 matchup, the Hawks seemed to be as hot as they’ve been all year, fresh off a 62-3 rout of Millersville and praising the chemistry they had developed. Overcoming various injuries and integrating a number of transfers into key roles, they appeared well on their way to a potential undefeated season.
Then, an IUP team with one of the top-ranked defensive units in all of Division II football and an offense with a loaded running backfield gave up an astounding 676 yards and sputtered in its own efforts to move the ball against Slippery Rock, resulting in perhaps the worst defeat under coach Curt Cignetti in more than two seasons.
Granted, Slippery Rock and their dangerous quarterback, Nigel Barksdale, are deserving of recognition.
But when it comes to evaluating IUP and where the team stands through six weeks of action, it’s important to try to gauge whether the Crimson Hawks’ dismal performance Saturday was merely an aberration or, in the worst-case scenario, a sneak peek into severe, overlooked issues on a seemingly talented squad.
Looking at the team’s loss to Slippery Rock alone, there are tons of questions that remain unanswered: What happened to the secondary, which had been dominating with takeaways but got torched for 425 yards by Barksdale? What happened to the pounding rushing attack of De’Antwan Williams (senior, sociology), Erik Finklea (senior, health and physical education) and Israel Green (freshman, computer science) that mustered a mere 61 yards? What happened to quarterback Mike Box (senior, psychology), who has now thrown more interceptions (7) than he’s played games?
Some of these questions could be cleared up as soon as this week, because if the defense returns to its characteristic dominance, it’d be logical to assume the unit’s struggles against The Rock had more to do with Barksdale and company than its own efforts. Even so, the secondary’s struggles against the deep ball (and passing game in general) could be something to keep an eye on, especially considering IUP might face even more dangerous teams down the road.
Other questions, such as the concerns of inconsistency from Box and the offense, seem a bit more serious. See, IUP is a heck of a football team – a team that knows how to win. But its formula for doing just that seems to revolve quite a bit around a grind-it-out offense that hangs on to the ball and then depends on its stout defense to maintain a lead.
If teams like Slippery Rock, aggressive through the air and talented enough to put plenty of points on the board, attack IUP’s winning formula, taking away the Hawks’ possession-centered strategy and forcing the team to be pass-heavy and play catchup on the other side of the ball, that’s where problems could arise.
The Crimson Hawks remain one of the most potent contenders in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, and if their deep coaching staff, coupled with the amount of experience and productivity on the roster, is any indication of the success that’s yet to come, it’d hardly be a stretch to say that the infamous Slippery Rock loss will turn out to be a small bump in a long, successful road.
For a team like IUP that’s already overcome a good deal of adversity to get to its current point, the Slippery Rock game could ultimately become a tool of motivation more than anything.
Now, it’s simply up to the team to prove that its first loss of the year will also be its last – a test of resilience in a journey that hopefully leads to nothing short of a national championship.