WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- IUP had visions of playing for a national championship this year. But those dreams were shattered when quarterback Mike Box failed to connect on a fourth-down throw that, if completed, would have produced the winning score in the closing seconds.
Instead, the Crimson Hawks had to settle for a 21-17 loss to Winston-Salem State in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division II playoffs Saturday.
Winston-Salem State (13-0) advances to play West Texas A&M (12-2), which defeated Colorado State-Pueblo, 34-13, Saturday, in the semifinals next weekend. The game sites for the next round will be announced today. The national championship game is set for Dec. 15 in Florence, Ala.
"It was a tough, hard-fought game," said IUP coach Curt Cignetti. "But at the end of the day, we made too many mistakes to come away with a victory against a very good football team."
Trailing, 21-17, with 3:51 remaining in the fourth quarter, IUP launched what appeared to be a promising drive. The Crimson Hawks drove 70 yards and had a first-and-goal at the Winston-Salem 10. But on three consecutive plays from the 5, IUP came up empty.
On fourth down, Box tried to fire a short pass over the middle, but linebacker Carlos Fields grabbed Box's arm and the pass never came close to its intended target.
"I could feel the pocket closing in on me," said Box, who completed 16 of 36 passes for 236 yards and one touchdown with two interceptions. "My arm was hit while throwing and I wasn't able to get the ball off in time."
IUP (12-2) trailed for most of the game, but rallied in the second half to take its first lead, 17-14, late in the third quarter.
Johnny Franco intercepted a Winston-Salem pass and returned it 38 yards to set up Brett Ullman's 29-yard field goal.
On the ensuing kickoff, Winston-Salem's Jameze Massey fumbled and Mario Sanders of IUP recovered inside the Rams 25-yard line.
Three plays later, running back De'Antwan Williams, who finished with 110 rushing yards, scored on a short plunge to give IUP the lead.
The Crimson Hawks didn't lead for long.
Winston-Salem turned to starting quarterback Kameron Smith, who had been sidelined since early November with a bruised shoulder. Smith took over and directed a nine-play, 52-yard drive that ended with his winning 1-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Rozier. During his fourth-quarter stint, Smith completed 5 of 9 passes for 32 yards.
IUP was able to stay in contention because of its stifling defense, which lived up to its billing as one of the best in Division II. The Crimson Hawks limited the Rams to 47 rushing yards and finished with three quarterback sacks.
Winston-Salem broke a scoreless tie in the second quarter with Rozier's 1-yard touchdown run. IUP answered with the equalizer late in the second quarter when Box hooked up with Terrill Barnes on a 36-yard touchdown pass. Barnes finished with a game-high nine receptions for 160 yards.
The Rams, however, regained the lead when backup quarterback Anthony Carrothers fired a 55-yard desperation touchdown pass to Kenneth Patterson with no time left on the game clock.
Winston-Salem led, 14-7, at halftime.
? Valdosta State 48, Carson-Newman 26: Cedric O'Neal rushed for 194 yards and three touchdowns, and Cayden Cochran threw for 246 yards and three touchdowns as the Blazers (10-2) defeated the Eagles (9-3).
• West Texas A&M 34, Colorado State-Pueblo 13: Dustin Vaughan passed for 324 yards and three touchdowns, and Khiry Robinson rushed for 178 yards as the Buffaloes (12-2) dealt the host ThunderWolves (12-1) their first loss of the season.
• Minnesota State-Mankato 17, Missouri Western State 10: Connor Thomas rushed for 161 yards and the go-ahead touchdown with just over three minutes remaining to give the host Mavericks (13-0) a win against the Griffons (12-2) and a spot in the Division II semifinals.