INDIANA, Pa. – It was postseason football at its finest at George P. Miller Stadium as Indiana (Pa.) took down Ashland (Ohio) in the second round of the NCAA Division II Tournament, 19-13.
In front of a strong home crowd, the Crimson Hawks capitalized on several key plays including a pivotal blocked punt that was returned for a score. With 3:52 to go in the third quarter as the Crimson Hawks’ offense was stalling, Raunya Mitchell knocked down the Ashland punt as Connor Kelly then scooped it and ran for a 25-yard score.
“What we were noticing after the first two punts is that they were coming down really hard on Raunya and me, so we were making sure if he comes down hard, loop and it would be open,” Kelly said. “Raunya made a play and just got to do the rest, scoop and score, and don’t get tackled.”
It was certainly the tipping point in the contest as the offense sputtered in the middle portion of the game. IUP fed off of that critical play the rest of the way.
“In these games, they’re such close games that you always try to have a two-score lead,” head coach Paul Tortorella said. “Today it was tough but we did get a two-score lead after the blocked punt because things change when you get that two-score lead.”
The extra boost on the scoreboard came after a slow second quarter and start of the third quarter. IUP was lucky to not trail heading into halftime as Mak Sexton threw two interceptions on consecutive drives but Ashland could not cash in.
Minutes before the game-changing punt, the defense stepped up with a decisive goalline stand as Ashland was stopped on a fourth-and-one at the IUP two-yard line.
“We felt like if we played it right, we could stop them in the run game,” Tortorella said. “We were banking on they were going to run it and we got to stop it and we did.”
The fourth down stop was just a glimpse at the performance the run defense put together. A week ago, the Eagles ran for 224 yards, but the Crimson Hawks limited them to 106 yards on the ground.
“That was our main focus in stopping the run,” Kelly said. “Our focus was to load the box and make them one dimensional.”
As the defense and special teams stepped up in the latter half of the game, IUP’s offense put the Crimson Hawks ahead early.
With the opening drive, IUP marched down the field to draw first blood. Mak Sexton fooled the defense with a play-action fake as he then went to Hilton Ridley who was in one-on-one coverage with Jovon Sewell for an easy six-yard pitch and catch.
On the ensuing drive, Ashland answered right back. Austin Brenner and the Ashland offense was faced with a third and long but Brenner rolled to his right a threw a 38-yard strike to Garrett Turnbaugh who had Randy Washington draped all over him.
Then, after a lengthy drive, the Crimson Hawks punched right back. Sexton once again went up top this time to Duane Brown for a one-yard score. Despite being near the goalline, the Crimson Hawks knew they had a chance to have one-on-one coverage if they went to the air.
“We are big with one-on-one with our two wideouts,” Tortorella said. “Duane [Brown] is still not 100 percent but he’s still Duane. Ridley’s the same way. They are both skilled receivers.”
Tortorella saw the opportunity to attack through the air with the personnel package that Ashland brought in.
“They got nine guys in the box to stop the run,” he said. “We do that a lot when we get in a heavy formation on the goalline but if we have a wideout in the game it’s usually one-on-one with a lot of field to cover and its been very high percentage for us this year.”
While the passing game got it done in the first half, the run game carried the Crimson Hawks home to victory with long drives to chew up clock. With top back Dayjure Stewart out, Adam Houser was called on to be the workhorse for the Crimson Hawks. On the day, Houser finished with 125 yards.
“In the huddle, we were reminding each other that first downs were going to win us the game,” Houser said. “When we want to run the ball I think we can do it because we have the guys up front that will allow us to do that.”
Ashland had one last gasp at extending its season with less than a minute to go but the IUP defense came up big one last time as the Crimson Hawks disrupted one last attempt when the Eagles brought in backup quarterback Trevor Bycznski who ended up throwing it incomplete while being spun to the ground.
Now, IUP is set for a PSAC title game rematch with Shepherd next Saturday. Tortorella and the Crimson Hawks will get another opportunity to knock off a familiar foe.
“It will be a big task for us to beat them again. It’s always hard to beat a team two times in a season,” Tortorella said.
This time, it will be IUP hosting Shepherd with kick-off at George P. Miller Stadium still to be announced.