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IUP favored in PSAC West preseason poll

| Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, 8:19 p.m.

A Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West Division poll pegged Indiana (Pa.) as the preseason favorite Monday, but many of the players and coaches in the conference room at Slippery Rock's Robert Smith Student Center indicated they suspect very little separates the underdogs and the leaders of the pack this season.

With swarms of returning starters at Mercyhurst, Gannon, Edinboro, Clarion and Seton Hill — which finished fourth through eighth in the coaches' poll — no game is a gimmie. IUP, which received five of the eight first-place votes, retained just 10 starters, including only two on offense. Defending division champ Slippery Rock took third in the poll even with the return of most of the starters who propelled the team's prolific offense in 2013. And California (Pa.) came in second despite several defensive holes.

“I think that we, since coach (Curt Cignetti) has been here, we've built up the reputation that we're going to put 11 guys on the field that are pretty good, regardless of how much they previously played or what their history is,” said senior offensive lineman and Fox Chapel grad Matthew Sasson, one of IUP's two returning starters on that side of the ball. “These are just predictions, but it's not really a surprise. It's kind of our expectation to be at the top with a target on our back. That's fine, and we welcome it.”

IUP, which finished 9-2 a season ago and won the PSAC in 2012, again will count on a defense that annually ranks among the best in the country. Fortunately for the Crimson Hawks, who allowed PSAC-lows in points (15.4 per game) and yards (307.5), their linebacker corps welcomes back redshirt senior Alex Berdahl, who made 103 tackles to earn all-conference honors in 2012 but missed almost the entire 2013 season with a left-thumb injury.

“We had great leadership (in 2012), and that was the main thing,” Berdahl said. “Last year, when we fell behind, we didn't have the leadership that we had before. So this year, we have to have that great leadership and build that great camaraderie.”

The graduation of quarterback Nigel Barksdale, the 2013 PSAC leader in total offense (349.9 yards per game), creates a void at Slippery Rock, but with eight starters back on that side of the ball, The Rock isn't likely to suffer too greatly.

“Look out for us because we're going to keep doing what we're doing,” said junior offensive lineman Cory Tucker, a 2013 All-PSAC first-teamer. “The thing I've been stressing during spring ball and summer is that we can't live off of last year.”

In an effort to balance the amount of talent present on each side of the ball, Cal moved senior Jeff Knox Jr., the team's leading rusher in 2013, to linebacker; he played safety as a sophomore. Ball-carrying responsibilities will go to sophomore Nick Grissom and junior Derrick Fiore, a Ringgold product — both will benefit from an offensive line that has four starters and a tight end back. Knox will enhance a defense that includes just four returning starters, none of whom are seniors.

“I've always been defense-first all my life,” Knox said. “It feels real good to be back.”

The top spot in the PSAC West has belonged to Slippery Rock, IUP, Cal, Mercyhurst or some combination of them each season since 2006 — Edinboro and Cal each finished 5-1 in 2005. Perhaps no team believes it's more poised to crash the four-team party this season than Gannon, which joined the PSAC in 2008 and went 6-5 in 2013 to finish with its best winning percentage since 2010. The Golden Knights have nine starters back on each side of the ball and two more among specialists.

Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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