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If the Crimson Hawks want to rebuild the winning streak they maintained throughout last year and early this season, they’ll have a chance toward doing just that Saturday in a conference matchup against the Clarion University Golden Eagles.
Indiana University of Pennsylvania is back on the right track after a 28-6 victory over Mercyhurst University last week, but the team could be at least a handful of wins away from erasing two straight losses that put a serious dent in the Hawks’ playoff chances.
At this point in the season, it’s probably a stretch to say the team remains a national title contender – something it was hyped to be ever since the conclusion of the 2012 campaign. Even so, Saturday’s showdown with the Golden Eagles could hold a lot of importance for the Hawks moving forward.
“We have to continue to move forward and treat every game like it’s our last,” said running back Erik Finklea (senior, health and physical education), echoing a standard that coach Curt Cignetti has emphasized since day one of the season.
Of course, taking the one-game-at-a-time approach has so far failed to erase a two-week stretch of pass coverage deficiencies and turnovers that resulted in losses to California University of Pennsylvania and Edinboro University, but the Crimson Hawks seemed to return to form last Saturday.
Just as Cignetti and company have been striving to improve themselves from week to week, the team’s upcoming contest with Clarion could serve as the biggest challenge to date – not necessarily because of the Eagles but more so because of IUP’s search for consistency.
In terms of what kind of threat the Golden Eagles pose, Clarion hasn’t exactly stood out in any particular aspect of the game this year, ranking just 127th overall in Division II when it comes to offense. Defensively, they have been a bit better statistically, although a 103rd-place puts them far behind IUP. That being said, Clarion (4-4) is fresh off a blowout victory of Seton Hill University, which did its best to upset IUP earlier this season.
Among the players to watch for from the Golden Eagles are defensive lineman Julian Howsare, who has been a standout up front with 12.5 tackles for loss and a pair of both interceptions and forced fumbles; defensive backs Adam Lynch and Malik King, who have combined for four interceptions this year; and running back Bobby Thomas, who leads Clarion on the ground with 550 yards and six touchdowns.
The Crimson Hawks’ game plan could come down to fundamentals. On paper, the team boasts plenty of talent and top-end production, so it could be vital for the key players to step up and perform to their potential. That starts with quarterback Mike Box (senior, psychology), who rebounded from a pair of turnover-littered performances to score two touchdowns against Mercyhurst last week but applies to just about every other starter, from running back De’Antwan Williams (senior, sociology) to wide receiver Terrill Barnes (senior, management).
“We just have to execute and take it one game at a time,” said Williams, who has averaged more than 103 yards per game as IUP’s No. 1 back.
Like the rest of the team, IUP’s once-vaunted defensive unit will have an opportunity to prove its true identity in Saturday’s game.
As was the case for most of the Crimson Hawks in the team’s two-game losing streak, the defense struggled mightily and failed to solidify the dominant reputation it had built.
A second consecutive solid performance against Clarion could, at the very least, continue to set the Hawks on a path back to reliability, and just as has been stressed, execution figures to be key.
“We have to come out with a big focus this week and execute on both sides of the ball,” cornerback Jeremiah McPhearson (sophomore, criminology) said.
IUP could have a long road ahead before it regains the title of being a national championship contender, but at this point, the Crimson Hawks are essentially forced to take the standard they emphasized even before dropping two consecutive games on their regular season schedule.
If that sinks in each week and the approach remains to attack one game at a time, IUP could work itself back into top form before it’s too late.