The tide turned for the IUP football program when Curt Cignetti began transforming the Crimson Hawks into the Crimson Tide.
Head coach Curt Cignetti led the IUP football team to the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championship in November and other successes reminiscent of the program’s glory days.
The former University of Alabama assistant coach, who earned a national championship ring while on Nick Saban’s staff, brought the blueprint followed in Tuscaloosa north to Indiana and, in short order, elevated the Hawks from so-so to so, so sublime. Seniors who had endured an 11-11 record in their first two years capped their careers last fall with a flourish: a Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference title, a 12-2 season that ranks among the best in school history, and two NCAA playoff victories that signaled IUP’s return to national prominence.
“I’ve had a lot of people tell me they did not expect this kind of success this quickly,” said Cignetti, whose teams have won 19 games in his first two seasons, a school record he shares with his father, Frank. “We did make fast progress. I knew it was a program that had a tremendous tradition of success when my dad was here [1986-2005], and it had slipped a little bit but, based on its history, could be very successful in the future. This past year, I thought we had a chance to be a good football team, and we were.”
That’s an understatement on a par with saying Pavarotti could carry a tune. The 2012 Crimson Hawks were very much a throwback to the glory days under the elder Cignetti. Consider:
- IUP’s 12 wins were the most since 1993, when the national runners-up set a school record with 13.
- The Hawks reached the national quarterfinals for the first time since 1999 and came within five yards of advancing to the semifinals.
- IUP ranked seventh in the final American Football Coaches Association poll, the highest finish since 2003.
- Three Hawks were named to the prestigious Associated Press Little All-America team—free safety Johnny Franco, offensive tackle Dan Matha, and running back Harvie Tuck, all seniors, were third-team selections—for the first time since 1995.
- A dominant defense, a hallmark of the school’s 1990s juggernauts, ranked first nationally.
It was just like old times, right down to the surname of the head coach.
“We had a very rewarding year,” Cignetti said. “I thought we had a good group of guys who played with great passion and a lot of heart, and we ended up getting good results.”
Alabama-type results, in fact. If IUP now bears a resemblance to the reigning Division I champions, well, that’s by design. Like the Crimson Tide, the Crimson Hawks swear by a relentless running attack and a defense that squeezes the life from opponents like a boa constrictor.
“I did believe that, by putting in the program we ran at Alabama, we would grow and we would develop,” said Cignetti, an overwhelming choice as the PSAC West Coach of the Year. “Alabama, they’re number one in the country the last three or four years on defense, and offensively they run the ball, they control the clock, they don’t turn it over—they keep their defense out of bad situations. When you do that, good things will happen.”
Defensively, the Hawks led the nation in fewest points (12.5) and yards (257.9) allowed per game and ranked third in fewest rushing yards permitted (80.1). They held seven opponents to 10 points or less, a stunning feat in this era of supercharged, score-in-the-blink-of-an-eye offenses. IUP was so stingy that FootballScoop.com named defensive coordinator Paul Tortorella the top assistant coach in Division II.
The ground game, meanwhile, rolled on week after week, as unstoppable as an avalanche. Led by Tuck, the PSAC West Offensive Player of the Year, the Hawks set school records with 3,630 yards rushing and an average of 259.3 per game. Despite an ankle injury that limited his carries and effectiveness late in the season, Tuck ran for 1,660 yards, the third-best total in school history, and pushed his career total to 4,341, good for second place on the all-time list. Senior De’Antwan Williams stepped up in spectacular fashion when Tuck was hobbled and gained 1,325 yards, the seventh-highest total in IUP history.
Despite an ankle injury late in the season, senior Harvie Tuck ran for 1,660 yards, the third-best total in school history, and pushed his career total to 4,341, good for second on the all-time list.
By virtue of their supremacy in rushing and defending, the Hawks were able to nearly run the table in the regular season, the only blemish a last-second 26-24 loss at California. Even so, the PSAC West champions were decided underdogs against unbeaten Shippensburg in the showdown for the conference title. The Red Raiders came in averaging 52.7 points and a Division II-leading 566.5 yards per game, but they smacked into a brick wall at Miller Stadium. Final score: 41-10.
“I guess it all came together in the Shippensburg game,” Cignetti said. “They were undefeated, had great offensive numbers—not too many people gave us a chance to win.”
Fewer still expected IUP to survive long in the NCAA playoffs. But the Hawks ousted Shepherd 27-17 in the first round and then knocked off unbeaten New Haven on the road, 17-14, to earn a date with yet another unbeaten team, Winston-Salem State, in the quarterfinals.
Unfazed, IUP once again took the fight to a favored foe. Trailing 21-17 with time running out, the Hawks marched to the Winston-Salem State five-yard line and had three cracks at the end zone in the final minute. The host Rams escaped when a defender struck junior quarterback Mike Box’s arm as he released a fourth-down pass and the ball fluttered harmlessly to the turf, bringing to an agonizing conclusion IUP’s magical season.
“When you play in a playoff system, there’s only one team that gets to feel really great about things at the end, and that’s the team that wins it all,” Cignetti said. “So we were all disappointed at the outcome of the Winston-Salem State game because we were so close to advancing. And then seeing what they did the next week to West Texas A&M—they beat them handily [41-18]—we realized how close we were to playing for the national championship.”
Which might explain why Cignetti is already stoked for a 2013 season that’s still months away.
“One of the positives—and there were many from last year, obviously—is a lot of the returning guys see how close we are,” he said. “If there were any doubts before in their minds in terms of how far we can go, they should be removed now. There should be confidence that, if we work hard and commit ourselves and have the discipline, really anything’s achievable.”
Like recapturing the glory days of IUP football, back when Cignetti’s father commanded one of the elite programs in all the land. And if following the Alabama blueprint continues to pay dividends, who knows?
Maybe someday soon the Crimson Hawks, like the Crimson Tide, will end the season holding aloft a national championship trophy.