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Fade to Finish

When last seen, the IUP football players were shuffling off the field like the expressionless zombies in George Romero’s classic fright flick, Night of the Living Dead.

The numbers on the scoreboard at Saginaw Valley State’s Wickes Memorial Stadium proved every bit as unsettling as the images Romero projected on the screen. In a mystifying meltdown, the Indians blew a twenty-five-point halftime lead and lost 33-32 in their first-round NCAA Division II playoff game at Saginaw, Mich.

The Cardinals’ comeback sealed what coach Frank Cignetti labeled the most heartbreaking defeat of his IUP career. Worse, it capped a late-season swoon in which the Indians, soaring at 8-0 and ranked No. 2 nationally, went into free fall and finished with consecutive losses.

Carmelo Ocasio

Carmelo Ocasio

“We go up there and play a great first half and you think, that’s the way this team’s supposed to play,” Cignetti said. “It looked like a team that had a legitimate shot at making a run at a championship. Then you play a second half like you don’t even belong in the tournament. It was almost unbelievable. I mean, how could this have happened?”

The collapse was, in every sense, a team effort. The offense committed four turnovers in the second half, the kicking game misfired on three extra points and a chip-shot field goal, and IUP’s vaunted defense permitted the Cardinals to march ninety-eight yards for the winning touchdown, a seven-yard scamper by quarterback Matt LaFleur with 1:27 left.

Alas, that horrific finish overshadowed what was indisputably another stellar season for the program. The Indians captured the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Western Division title, won the Lambert/Meadowlands Cup as the premier Division II team in the East, and reached the playoffs for the twelfth time in Cignetti’s sixteen seasons at IUP. But those achievements couldn’t salve the anguish of a November nosedive. A week before falling apart at Saginaw, the Indians lost 30-26 to undermanned Millersville in the regular-season finale.

“When your season finishes that way, you just feel very empty and unfulfilled,” Cignetti said. “You can’t feel good about the things you did accomplish. A lot of teams would love to be 8-2 and win their conference and win the Lambert, but here it’s not enough. That’s what it is when you have high expectations. This team had a goal of winning a national championship, and there’s no doubt in my mind it was a realistic goal. We had enough talent, we had good leadership, we had maturity and playoff experience. So basically the pieces of the puzzle were all there. What’s disappointing is that this is one of the very few teams we’ve had in my whole tenure at IUP that didn’t finish strong. We could never get rolling like a championship team.”

It wasn’t for lack of outstanding individuals. For example, All-America cornerback Joey Flora anchored a defense that ranked third nationally in fewest points allowed and topped the PSAC in four statistical categories. Quarterback Brian Eyerman threw for 2,416 yards and twenty-two touchdowns and led the conference in passing efficiency and total offense. Tailback Aamir Dew rushed for 1,244 yards to rank ninth nationally and finish in second place on the school’s career list (3,623) behind Michael Mann. And wide receiver Carmelo Ocasio caught fifty-seven passes for 1,122 yards, a school-record 112.2 per-game average.

Ocasio and Eyerman will return next season, along with six others who earned first- or second-team all-conference honors.

“We have a great nucleus coming back,” Cignetti said. “Offensively, all our wide receivers, all our tight ends, the quarterback, and two very good running backs return. Defensively, we’ve got our front seven pretty much back intact. And our kicking specialists are all back.”

It’s a cast capable of mounting another run at a national championship. Cignetti just hopes his Indians avoid the kind of ghastly final act that in 2001 turned a feel-good flick into a horror show.

Otherwise, IUP’s title hopes will be as lifeless as George Romero’s zombies.