The running game that powered IUP to the PSAC championship and a ranking among the top 15 nationally in both Division II polls might be grounded Saturday when the Crimson Hawks (10-1) play host to Shepherd (8-2).
The Crimson Hawks rushing attack is ranked No. 8 in Division II with 285.4 yards per game. They have a 5.3 yards per carry average and 33 rushing touchdowns.
But going into the NCAA Division II first-round playoff game, Shepherd features the No. 1-ranked rushing defense, allowing 37.6 yards per game. The Rams have given up only three rushing touchdowns.
And although IUP, which is the No. 3 seed in Super Region 1, has passed the ball better in the past month than earlier in the year, Crimson Hawks coach Curt Cignetti knows his team is unlikely to win if it can't run.
"It is what we do and what we always have done. The running game is obviously a huge part of who we are as a football team," Cignetti said, "So, when you see their stats and, more importantly, you see them on film you know this is going to be a great challenge for us. They are the best rush defense in their country and, while they play against a lot of spread offense in their conference, those stats are very impressive.
"Really, their front eight [Shepherd is a 4-4 defense] is dynamic. They are dominant. They are really a handful and very active and really get after you aggressively. We have to get them blocked."
Cignetti said that the Crimson Hawks can counter with a better passing game than people think because quarterback Mike Box has slowly but surely developed rhythm and chemistry with his receivers, especially Terrill Barnes, who had seven catches last week in the PSAC title game.
Box will have to make some big plays in the passing game to loosen some things up for 4,000-yard career rusher Harvie Tuck, but Cignetti said the key, as always is patience and perseverance.
"You can't be one dimensional, you have to be able to do both run and pass," Cignetti said. "We can do that and now that gives us the opportunity to keep them off balance and guessing a little bit."
Shepherd, seeded No. 6 in the region, is the WVIAC champ and led the conference in scoring (31 points per game) but, like IUP, the Rams have a multiple and balanced offense that will keep the Crimson Hawks guessing.
Cignetti said that while the Rams' strength is their defense, the offense will test IUP.
"They do a lot of different things, they have a nice quarterback and he throws to a lot of different receivers," Cignetti said. "They can spread you out, then they can pull you back in and run power, so it will be a challenge for us.
"We need to play well and continue to do the things we have done that have gotten us to this point.
"We are playing for the right to play one more game and we need to play with that mentality. Every play matters."
• Washington & Jefferson at John Hopkins, noon, Homewood Field: Washington & Jefferson's defense is one of the best in the nation, but the Presidents will have their hands full with John Hopkins.
The Blue Jays are ranked 11th in total offense (495 yards per game) and average 262.6 yards per game on the ground.
But the Presidents have fared well against teams from the Centennial Conference with a 30-12-2 record against such teams.
This is, however, their first game against John Hopkins.
W&J will need a big day from quarterback Mike Bliss, a 4,000-yard career passer who completed 21of 26 passes for 256 yards last week in the conference-clinching victory against Waynesburg.sportscollegedistrict
Paul Zeise: email@example.com and Twitter @paulzeise.