IUP football faces big challenge on road

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Winston Salem State is 12-0, finished the regular season ranked No. 3 in the D2football.com poll and will be at home today for the NCAA Division II playoff regional final.

Mixed together, it makes perfect sense that the Rams are big favorites against IUP (12-1). But that doesn't mean much to IUP coach Curt Cignetti whose Crimson Hawks have been the underdogs several times this postseason but managed to advance.

"This is the third time in four games we are playing against an undefeated team," Cignetti said. "Winston-Salem is a great team; they have no weaknesses. But we've been able to overcome that and last weekend we did it on the road against New Haven.

"People may count us out or overlook us, but we are a good football team. We play hard, we're going to fight until the end, so we don't mind being sort of the underdog."

Cignetti said he isn't naive, however, and he knows what a challenge this game will be. After all, the Rams are playing at a bit of a higher level than most of the Division II teams because they dropped from Division I-AA to Division II in 2010.

"If you look at them on film, you can see some real superstar-caliber players who were recruited when the school was still playing at the I-AA level," Cignetti said. "That's a great challenge. I don't know how the scholarship numbers work when a team is in transition, but I'd imagine they are still operating with more scholarship players than your typical Division II team because you'd think they have to honor them all.

"But that's not what our focus is. Our focus is on trying to figure out how to beat them and to do that we have to play our game -- run the ball, make splash plays on the outside, control the clock and play great defense and, of course, don't turn the ball over."

Winston Salem won the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association title and did so with an offense that was dominant.

The Rams led the CIAA in total offense, rushing offense and points per game and have an excellent core of receivers that includes Jameze Massey, Jahuann Butler and Jamal Williams, who have combined to catch 39 touchdown passes.

Cignetti said the Rams passing game poses big problems and hopes IUP's defense, ranked in the top 10 in Division II in five categories, is up to the task.

"Really, when you play an undefeated team, a team that is used to winning, you have to play well in all three phases, you have to play a complete football game," Cignetti said.

"Our offense has to help our defense by controlling the clock and getting first downs, our special teams has to be a winning edge and, of course, we cannot give up big plays in the passing game if we are going to have a chance to win.,

"I think if you look at our team, we're not quite as deep as they are so we have to stay healthy. But we've proven that, when we play well, we can play with just about anyone out there, so this is just the latest challenge for us.

If IUP beats the Rams, the Crimson Hawks would advance to the national semifinals, which is the NCAA Division II football playoff's equivalent of the Final Four.

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Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com and Twitter: @paulzeise.


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