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Top-ranked defense leads IUP into D-II quarterfinals

| Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Among the reasons Indiana (Pa.) stands among the eight teams left in the NCAA Division II playoffs are a punishing ground game led by a pair of running backs with more than combined 2,800 yards, efficient passing that produced 17 touchdowns and just three interceptions, and solid special teams play.

But what might most define the 2012 squad is a defense that yields the fewest yards and points per game in D-II. As far as Paul Tortorella can tell, this is a first in his 18 mostly winning seasons as defensive coordinator.

“This defense doesn't have to take a backseat to any of (the others),” Tortorella said. “I'm not saying they're not talented, because they are, but they have a lot of intangibles that makes us play as good as we can play.”

Among those intangibles are “good leadership, we're resilient, we're mentally tough,” said Tortorella, who was hired in 1995 by then-coach Frank Cignetti Sr., the father of the current coach, Curt Cignetti. “We might not look that good in uniform, but the bottom line is the end result. Our goal is to play well enough to win the game and our guys have done a great job of that.”

“We work together as a unit, we feed off each other,” said junior linebacker Carl Fleming, a Pitt transfer. “I think that's a big thing when you have a good defense. We make each other better, and we get each other motivated to come out each and every play and do better. Don't be satisfied with the last play.”

Aided by an offense that ranks second nationally in time of possession, IUP has given up 251.7 yards and 11.9 points per game and ranks second in turnover margin. Probably the defense's signature performance was muzzling Shippensburg in the PSAC championship game. The Raiders rolled in unbeaten, averaging 566 yards and 53 points a game, and left a 41-10 loser held to 271 yards.

Ranked 11th nationally, the Crimson Hawks (12-1) face another stern test Saturday when they visit No. 2 Winston-Salem State (12-0) in a quarterfinal game. With a huge offensive line and several quality skill players, the Rams average 44.5 points and 483.3 yards a game.

As part of any discussion of defense, Cignetti, who took over his dad's job last season, often references the “blueprint” he brought with him after working on Nick Saban's staff for four years at Alabama. “It made a lot of sense to me,” Cignetti said. “The identity that you're a tough, relentless football team.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bcohn@tribweb.com or 412-320-7810

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