District notebook: IUP's stellar defense faces major challenge
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IUP has one of the best defenses in NCAA Division II football, which is a big reason the Crimson Hawks (9-1) will play the PSAC championship game this afternoon.
The Crimson Hawks defense is ranked No. 1 in Division II in total yards yielded per game and in the top 10 in a number of other defensive categories, including fewest points against.
Despite the gaudy numbers and the performances that generated them, IUP coach Curt Cignetti invokes an old football cliche when asked about the key to victory for his team:
"The best defense is a good offense."
That's because PSAC West champion IUP's opponent in the title game today is high-powered East champion Shippensburg (10-0), winners of 14 games in a row against PSAC opponents.
The Red Raiders feature the nation's top offense and average a mind-boggling 566.5 yards of total offense and 52.7 points per game.
They are led by junior quarterback Zach Zulli, the nation's leader in total offense (402.7 ypg). He has completed 247 of 411 passes for 3,845 yards, 49 touchdowns and five interceptions.
With Zulli as triggerman, the Red Raiders have been able to score quickly from anywhere. Cignetti said that based on his study of game tape, the only way to stop Zulli is to keep him on the sidelines.
"When you play a team that explosive, I don't care how good your defense is, you aren't going to totally shut them down and stop them," Cignetti said.
"When you look at Shippensburg, they are so good on offense, they are going to make plays, they are going to score some things against you, they just have too many weapons to totally shut them down.
"For us, however, the best way we can combat that is to not let them have the ball, and that is something we have been very good at. The untold story of how good our defense has been is that our offense possesses the ball and controls the clock and limits the other team's opportunities."
The Crimson Hawks have been among Division II's best at time of possession (35:43 minutes per game, fourth) and rushing the football (285.2 ypg, eighth). Cignetti said the formula has worked because they have an excellent offensive line and a great combination in the backfield with seniors Harvie Tuck and De'Antwan Williams.
Tuck is the division's third-leading rusher with 1,548 yards, 15 touchdowns, a 154.8 yards per game rushing average and a 6.5 yards per carry mark. He is a physical runner who makes a lot of yards after initial contact.
But Cignetti said when the Crimson Hawks need a change of pace, they turn to Williams, who has rushed for 809 yards, seven touchdowns and averages 6.3 yards per carry. He is shiftier and has more breakaway speed than Tuck.
"I am really lucky to have two guys who are both all conference-caliber backs," Cignetti said. "But it starts with our offensive line That unit has been grinding away all year, and they have become very good and, when it comes down to it, if you can control the line of scrimmage you have a chance to win."
The Crimson Hawks may be hampered by injuries. They lost six starters to injury in the win against Gannon last week, and Cignetti said they are all day-to-day.
One of those is Tuck, who has been limited all week, but Cignetti said the sign of a good team is that they can overcome anything, even injuries to key players.
While the PSAC stages a championship game, the PAC does not. But the conference championship will be decided this afternoon in a de facto title game as Washington & Jefferson (7-2, 6-1) travels just south on I-79 to play Waynesburg (9-0, 7-0) in the PAC's version of the Backyard Brawl.
The winner will be crowned the PAC champion and earn the conference's automatic berth in the NCAA Division III playoffs.
Washington & Jefferson has dominated this series recently, winning eight games in a row against the Yellow Jackets. Overall, they own a 36-3 advantage in the series.
But the Yellow Jackets were off last week and should be well rested and are the favorites, undefeated and playing at home.
First Published November 10, 2012 12:00 am