INDIANA, Pa. – Three weeks ago, Indiana (Pa.) took down Shepherd in the PSAC title game and with revenge on their minds, the Rams returned to George P. Miller Stadium and put a beatdown on the Crimson Hawks 48-13 to advance to the Division II semifinals.
A well-rounded win three weeks ago seemed to be a distant memory for the Crimson Hawks as they failed to garner any inkling of solid football outside of the opening drive.
“The game got away from us,” head coach Paul Tortorella said. “Shepherd played a great game. They outplayed us, they outcoached us. We got behind and things started to snowball on us.”
Shepherd’s stars impressed in the dominating victory with quarterback Tyson Bagent setting a collegiate record for most passing touchdowns and running back Ronnie Brown torching the defense for 141 yards and two touchdowns.
Bagent and the offense carved up the Crimson Hawks’ defense. The Rams scored numerous times on broken coverage and extended plays. After an opening drive score by IUP, Shepherd punched right back with a big strike. Bagent found Rodney Dorsey all alone near midfield as he finished off the play for a 71-yard touchdown.
“That one hurt because it took the momentum,” Tortorella said. “We blew a coverage on third down that led to a big play and a touchdown.”
After a defensive struggle, Shepherd finally broke through the defensive lock hold with 5:35 left in the second quarter. Bagent with a beautiful play-action fake that left Cameron Dorner wide open up the seam as he hauled in an 18-yard touchdown reception.
It was deja vu for Bagent and the Rams’ offense on the following drive as Bagent found tight end Brian Walker open in the end zone for a 17-yard strike. With the touchdown, Bagent broke the all-time collegiate record for passing touchdowns with 158.
The offensive downpour by Shepherd came after IUP took the lead on the opening possession of the game as Mak Sexton located tight end Cole Laney on a wide-open crossing route as Laney ran it in untouched for an 18-yard touchdown.
IUP has made it a habit to score on its opening drive as the Crimson Hawks have capitalized on four straight opening possessions, but that success could not be sustained the rest of the way.
“It’s great to get off to a hot start and be able to drive down the field and get points up on the board, but it didn’t translate to the rest of the game,” Sexton said.
While the first half was not promising, the second half was unforgettable, to say the least. The Crimson Hawks could not get out of their own way.
The Crimson Hawks were looking to come out from the locker room with some adjustments offensively against the Rams. However, that was quickly shot down as Adam Houser fumbled on the second play of the half.
Costly play continued for IUP as a snap went over the head of punter Aiden Spitler with the ball rolling all the way to IUP’s 20-yard line.
Bagent and the Rams made no mistake with those opportunities as they capitalized on both drives.
“First play of the second half we fumble and that’s obviously a sudden change situation against a good offense,” Tortorella said. “When they get the ball on the 30-yard line, you’re in trouble. And then the next series, we botched the snap and they get it on the 20-yard line.”
Saturday’s loss was much different than the performance the Crimson Hawks put on in the conference title game. The Crimson Hawks played a clean brand of football that limited the Rams’ game plan.
“The first game, we made them drive the field,” Tortorella said. “They didn’t have many drives on our side.”
Not only did the turnovers hinder the Crimson Hawks, but the difference in the running game was crucial. In the title game, IUP held the Rams to 53 yards on the ground while the Crimson Hawks rushed for 184. The roles were reversed on Saturday as Brown’s 141 yards and two touchdowns were key for Shepherd against a mere 80 yards for the Crimson Hawks.
“When you don’t run the ball well and they run it well that stuff just adds up,” Tortorella said.
IUP’s defense did not seem to have an answer for both Bagent and Brown as they imposed their will all day long.
“Coming into the game, we knew they were going to put an emphasis on the run game,” linebacker Drew Dinunzio-Biss said. “[Brown’s] a good back and he was able to make guys miss in the open field and hit the hole hard.”
When it couldn’t get any worse, Mak Sexton had a ball snatched by Klayton Batten and returned for a 28-yard pick-six to extend its lead to 48-7.
Frustration mounted up as the Crimson Hawks seemed lifeless as the game clock wore down in the fourth quarter with multiple unnecessary roughness and unsportsmanlike penalty.
“It felt like anything that could go wrong did go wrong and it definitely takes a toll on a team and that’s no excuse but the energy was down in the second half,” Sexton said.
While it was not the way the Crimson Hawks wanted to end their season, the program still put together a remarkable season to send their seniors out with.
“This game shouldn’t define [the seniors],” Tortorella said. “They’ve won a lot of games. They’ve won the PSAC and have been great ambassadors for the university. I couldn’t ask for a better senior class that had a lot of success and did things the right way.”
The Crimson Hawks conclude their season with a 10-2 record while Shepherd continues its postseason march as the Rams now move onto the semifinals next weekend.