Running the football is tantamount to success at IUP. The Crimson Hawks rushed for a school-record 3,630 yards last season, averaging 259.3 yards per game, and advanced to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division II national playoffs.
That success, however, starts up front.
"Last year the offensive line was a strength, and it's developing nicely this year," said IUP coach Curt Cignetti. "I feel really good about our line."
Leading the way on the line is Hempfield Township's Nick Carnicella.
Carnicella, a 6-foot-1, 275-pound left guard, is a Don Hansen All-American honorable mention, all-Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference first team and all-Super Region I first team. A redshirt senior, Carnicella has started 35 consecutive games for the Crimson Hawks.
"Nick is the heart and soul of the line," said Cignetti, in his third season at IUP. "He's a blood-and-guts guy, a bit of a throwback. He's a tough, physical guy who loves contact. He plays hard every play."
Led by Carnicella, a graduate of Hempfield Area High School, IUP has an offensive line that returns three starters, a fourth from two years ago, and is loaded with talent.
Playing next to Carnicella on the left side is redshirt senior Byron Dovales (6-3, 290). Dovales also is first-team all-PSAC and first-team all-Super Region I who has started 34 of his 35 games at IUP. At center is Fox Chapel graduate Matt Sasson (6-2, 290), a junior who started as a freshman and has played in 22 games. On the right side is senior guard Mike Charmo (6-2, 285), another three-year starter, with a battle at tackle between redshirt junior Bruce Atkins (6-4, 260), a Woodland Hills graduate, and redshirt junior Jorge Vicioso (6-6, 305), a transfer from Rutgers.
"We have three guys who have a lot of starts," Cignetti said. "When you try to establish the run like we do, it just helps to be big and physical up front. Nick's really a smart player, a good leader."
As a unit, the Crimson Hawks line allowed 11 quarterback sacks last season in 14 games, and the team's 3,630 rushing yards were second most in the conference.
"It's great that we finished that high up in rushing, we take pride in running the ball," Carnicella said. "Where we stack up against other teams, though, it doesn't matter. Just the fact that in each individual game we're doing enough to get the win, that's all that really counts."
Carnicella led IUP to a 12-2 finish last year and a No. 7 ranking by the American Football Coaches Association. The Crimson Hawks picked up a PSAC championship along the way before falling to Winston-Salem State, 21-17, in the national quarterfinals. IUP finished 6-1 in the PSAC West, sharing the West title with Mercyhurst. The only conference loss came against California, 26-24, on a 30-yard field goal with 3.5 seconds left.
And how does defeat sit with Carnicella and his IUP teammates?
"Not well," he said. "You just have to keep fighting them. Every play is another play and you just have to keep fighting the next one. You have to play harder than the play before if something doesn't work.
"The coaches put us in a good position to play and you have to trust in what they're doing. If you know that what they know is right then it'll all work out and it usually does for us."
The Crimson Hawks are once again picked to win the PSAC West and are ranked 10th in the American Football Coaches Association Division II Coaches Top 25 preseason poll. IUP opens the season Sept. 7 at Southern Connecticut State.
Rick Davis: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3789.