Back in 2017 when the Paul Tortorella era began at Indiana (Pa.), the program flourished as a part of a “perfect storm” that saw a large group of experienced players carry the Crimson Hawks to a 13-1 overall record, a PSAC Championship and an NCAA Division II semifinal berth.
Now, five years later, the team has not quite lived up to its championship aspirations in that span, but this season the stars are aligning across the board for what could be another IUP banner year.
The Crimson Hawks roster is littered with veteran experience, talented playmakers on both sides of the ball and a new signal caller.
“We have a veteran team with 14 seniors that have been in the program five years or more,” Tortorella said. “They have a lot invested in the program.”
From what Tortorella considered a down year last season with a record of 7-3 and a team that was a bit disconnected, to the 2022 Crimson Hawks, the team has come together to build a 7-0 start as they now sit at No. 11 in the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) poll.
While the Crimson Hawks have excelled in all facets of the game, one area that always gets the conversation started is at quarterback, and IUP is no exception. The Crimson Hawks made a transition this season by adding Pittsburg State (Kan.) quarterback Mak Sexton. The 6-foot-1 graduate senior stepped onto the campus in the spring and fit into the mold right away.
“You would think he’s been here for three or four years the way he interacts with his teammates and the way they interact with him,” Tortorella said. “Obviously the production is there, so it’s been really good to get him in the program, and he’s getting better as the season progresses.”
Since he entered spring ball, Sexton has made a strong connection with the entire team, but especially with the wide receivers. The work has paid off as Sexton has thrown for 1,908 yards and 19 touchdowns. While he shares the ball around the field, one specific receiver has sparked a key link in the offense. Redshirt senior Duane Brown has been on the receiving end of 11 touchdowns.
“I owe it all to Mak and the offensive coordinator for dialing stuff up and knowing where to put me, so a lot of credit goes to them,” Brown said regarding his successful season.
Brown, an Apollo-Ridge product, is in his fifth year with the program while Sexton just joined the Crimson Hawks only a few months ago. Still, as Tortorella mentioned, Sexton has not only shown his athleticism, but also the ability to be a leader.
“He’s always coaching us up, letting us know what we can do here and, on that route,” Brown said. “Having a vocal leader helps the offense tremendously, not just the receivers.”
With Sexton’s first season with the program, the receivers have also made it an easy switch to the offense as they have made big plays all season long.
“They’re real students of the game,” Sexton said. “They are trying to get better each and every day. On the field, they are making plays and it’s making my job easy.”
Accounting for more than half of his passing touchdowns, Sexton touched on the ability for Brown to also be a leader of the offense and grow with him.
“He’s one of the best receivers in the country,” Sexton said. “He wins almost every 50/50 ball. It makes it real easy for me to throw it up to him and have confidence that he’s going to come down with it. It doesn’t happen often, but a drop pass, he’s trying to figure it out to get it right for the next time.”
The dynamic duo knew they could be dangerous this season in the PSAC all the way back in spring ball, but the true realization came in week one.
“I knew it first game playing with Mak,” Brown said. “In the first game, the way he was finding me. He’s always confident, even when we went down, he was there to pick us up. You look for it in your quarterback.”
Along with a confident quarterback and a receiving room full of playmakers, the offense also needs a complementary running game and that is exactly what the Crimson Hawks have. IUP has fed on a three-running back approach with Dayjure Stewart, JD Younger and Adam Houser all getting touches.
“You can’t have a strong running game with just one running back,” Tortorella said, “We try to keep those guys as fresh as possible.”
With that approach, the Crimson Hawks have put together a solid ground game, moving the ball for 175.9 yards per game which is the most in the West Division. In his sophomore season, Stewart has led the running back movement with 633 yards and five touchdowns.
To cap off the veteran offensive unit up front, IUP has a handful of experienced offensive linemen. Five of the offensive linemen have over 20 games of experience entering the season. As Tortorella mentioned, the Crimson Hawks offense is fully invested compared to some of the units from previous years.
“Our offensive line, our tight ends and our receivers are doing a good job blocking,” Tortorella said.
As the offense has led the charge, the defense is setting them up for success. Compared to a veteran offense, the defensive unit is on the younger side.
“We played a lot of freshmen last year and most of those guys are sophomores,” Tortorella said. “You can see their development as the years gone on. They are taking their experience and really growing.”
The defensive line unit took a major hit against Slippery Rock when defensive end Tyrone Fowler Jr. broke his leg. Tyrone Jr. is coming off of a PSAC Freshman of the Year season. As the Crimson Hawks have dealt with the adversity of that loss, several other linemen have stepped up.
“Inside we’ve got two dominant inside down guys in Raunya Mitchell and Greg Moore,” Tortorella said.
Adding to that defensive line, the linebacking unit and secondary have factored into a solid Crimson Hawks defense that has held opposing offenses to 16 points per game. With defense limiting teams, that means more time for Sexton and the offense.
“I think they don’t get enough credit is our defense,” Sexton said. “They’ve got tons of three-and-outs. They give us the ball back all the time.”
Starting a season 7-0 is never easy and the Crimson Hawks have fought back from deficits multiple times throughout the season. The biggest two-week span of the season came against two big-time opponents – ranked Slippery Rock and Coal Bowl rival California (Pa.).
“The back-to-back wins against Slippery Rock and Cal really stand out,” Tortorella said. “They were hard-fought tough close games. The last five to ten minutes the game was on the line with every play.”
IUP erased an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter against Cal U. The determination of the Crimson Hawks squad really showed out in the one-point road victory against the Vulcans.
Each week, it comes down to several key factors that have pushed the Crimson Hawks. The experience is one thing, but it comes down to the bond the team has and the leadership as a group.
“Everybody is dialed into the same mission, and we didn’t have that last year,” Brown emphasized. “It starts with our leadership. Having guys you can trust on the team creates that unity that you want. Everyone else falling in and knowing their place and picking each other up.”
As the Crimson Hawks come down the stretch of the regular season, just as any team, the mentality is to focus on each game.
“We need to stay the course, keep doing what we are doing, and we’ll be alright no matter who we play,” Brown said.