IUP captures PSAC football title
Shippensburg dismantled pretty much every defense it encountered on its way to the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championship game, but as Indiana (Pa.) coach Curt Cignetti stated several times Saturday evening, the Red Raiders never came across any team quite like the Crimson Hawks.
IUP, the PSAC West division winner, prevailed, 41-10, over East champ Shippensburg at George P. Miller Stadium by containing an offense that ranked first in Division II in yards per game (556.5) and second in points per game (52.7).
The host Crimson Hawks (10-1), No. 5 in the NCAA's Super Region One, claimed their first PSAC overall title since 1987 and made a case for a first-round bye in the playoffs with a win over the super region's No. 1 team.
“I thought we had a little bit of an advantage in that we were playing them late in the year, and we'd seen 10 games on them and everything that they could do,” Cignetti said. “I didn't feel going into the game that they'd played anyone quite like us.”
Shippensburg (10-1) finished with 271 yards of offense. Its star quarterback, junior Zach Zulli, completed 17 of 42 pass attempts for 205 yards and one touchdown. Such a performance proved underwhelming for a player that entered the game with 49 touchdown passes and 3,845 passing yards on the season.
IUP entered the game allowing fewer yards (239.9) than any team in Division II. Its scoring defense (11.3) ranked second in the country.
The Crimson Hawks provided convincing evidence that they intended to stay among the nation's best during the Red Raiders' opening drive. Sophomore Dorian Lane sacked Zulli for a 7-yard loss on the second play from scrimmage. And on third-and-long, Zulli managed a 1-yard completion.
“They were physical, and they didn't back down from us even though we were the No. 1 offense,” said Shippensburg senior wide receiver Jacob Baskerville, a 1,000-yard performer on the season who had a team-high five catches for 63 yards Saturday. “They didn't back down. And they made more plays.”
Pressure on Zulli continued throughout the game. The Crimson Hawks took him down just twice for sacks. But they flushed him enough to force off-balance throws and scrambles. Zulli finished with 12 rushes for 26 yards.
Junior linebacker Carl Fleming, named the game's most valuable player, led IUP's defense with 12 tackles, and he provided the team's exclamation point with 5:49 left in the game as he returned an interception 40 yards for the Crimson Hawks' final score.
“We took it personally that nobody respected us,” Fleming said. “We knew if we came out there and performed, we'd be all right. … We have the No. 1 defense, they have the No. 1 offense, and it's going to be a battle no matter what. We came out victorious.”
IUP's offense, which scored on five of its first six possessions, ensured that the defense enjoyed room for a late-game error.
Running back De'Antwan Williams rushed 30 times for 135 yards and one touchdown. Quarterback Mike Box completed 11 of 16 pass attempts for 178 yards and a season-high three touchdowns. His yardage total was his third highest of the season. And wide receiver Terrill Barnes, the target on all three of Box's touchdown passes, finished with season-highs in receptions (7) and yards (124). He also had two rushes for 53 yards.
“We had a great game plan going in,” Box said. “They had some looks that we thought we could expose and capitalize on. And they happened to give us those good looks, and the coaches called the right plays at the right times.”
Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 724-543-1303.