Defense against Saginaw Valley State
For eleven weeks of the 2002 season, the IUP football team worked with absolutely no margin for error. No losses is how the Indians responded to the challenge.
Game after game, recognizing that even a single setback would likely extinguish their postseason hopes, they answered the call. Following a season-opening defeat at Findlay, the Indians reeled off eleven consecutive victories, the fourth-longest streak in the program’s history.
“After that loss, every game was like a playoff game,” said senior cornerback Mike Howard. “We lose again, it’s over.”
So they simply refused to lose. IUP ran the table, climbed to sixth in the NCAA Division II poll, and qualified for postseason play. The Indians then ousted Saginaw Valley State in a first-round match-up to reach the quarterfinals for the eighth time since 1987, a total unmatched by any other school in the nation in that span.
“When you look at what this team accomplished in eleven consecutive weeks, knowing that one more loss would eliminate them from the playoffs, I thought they did an outstanding job,” said coach Frank Cignetti. “The way they came back from a disappointing defeat at Findlay was really something special.”
Head coach Frank Cignetti
That’s as accurate a description of this team as any. The Indians finished 11-2, won the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Western Division title, claimed the Lambert/Meadowlands Cup as the premier Division II team in the East, and advanced to the playoffs for the thirteenth time in Cignetti’s seventeen seasons at the helm.
The Indians displayed their character in the face of adversity, wiping out second-half deficits on five occasions and, Lazarus-like, rising from the dead to secure a pivotal early-season victory over eighth-ranked Catawba. The visitors carried a nineteen-point lead into the fourth quarter before a benumbed crowd at Miller Stadium. But with the clock and their playoff hopes about to expire, the Indians jolted to life like Frankenstein’s monster and pulled out an electrifying 27-26 victory.
“That probably saved our season,” said Cignetti. “Is there such a thing as a signature game? It was that game and that fourth quarter that really made this football team’s season. The whole mindset of our football team, in terms of confidence and chemistry, was solidified after that game.”
Senior quarterback Brian Eyerman tossed three touchdown passes in the final ten minutes, the game-winner a thirty-six-yard strike to senior wide receiver J.R. Thomas with 1:37 remaining.
“The good thing about this team is no one ever panicked,” said Eyerman, who remained unflappable in situations more nerve-wracking than an IRS audit. “Everybody was calm, had that swagger to them that, you know, we can come back from anything.”
That’s because with Eyerman under center, no deficit seemed too large for the Indians to overcome. He ravaged opposing defenses and the IUP record book with his pin-point passing. For example, Eyerman threw a school-record five touchdown passes in a 42-6 rout of New Haven, then equaled the mark three weeks later in a 54-35 win at Edinboro. He tossed a school-record thirty-six TD passes against only seven interceptions and led the PSAC and ranked second nationally in passing efficiency. What’s more, Eyerman established school standards for career completions (536), passing yards (8,409), touchdown passes (84), and total offense (7,779 yards).
“Is there a record he hasn’t set?” asked Cignetti.
With the multitude of records came a multitude of honors. Eyerman was selected as a regional finalist for the Harlon Hill trophy, the Division II equivalent of the Heisman; was voted the PSAC West Offensive Player of the Year; repeated as a first-team All-PSAC selection, joining Howard, senior wide receiver Carmelo Ocasio, junior defensive end Andrew Battle, and junior placekicker Josh Telenko; and was chosen, along with Ocasio, to play in the Cactus Bowl, the Division II all-star game in Kingsville, Tex. Those accolades were dividends of the hours Eyerman invested toward becoming one of the best IUP’s ever had at his position.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever had a quarterback here who’s worked so hard,” Cignetti said. “I’m talking about his off-the-field preparation, his off-season work in the weight room, his summer preparation, practice. Other than when he was injured, I don’t know if this guy ever missed a practice.”
Eyerman rarely missed receivers, either, especially Ocasio. They formed one of the most dynamic passing combinations in school history. Ocasio led the Indians in receptions (60), yardage (1,002), and touchdowns (16) and finished second on the IUP career list in catches (165), yards (2,891), and receiving TDs (34), behind only his position coach, Jai Hill. He tied one of Hill’s school records by hauling in four touchdown passes in a 43-16 win over Millersville.
Senior tailback Elice Parker, a transfer from Louisiana State, complemented IUP’s devastating aerial attack with his breakaway running ability. Parker rushed for 1,125 yards, giving the Indians a 2,500-yard passer, 1,000-yard receiver, and 1,000-yard rusher in the same season for the first time ever. He also scored twelve touchdowns, three of them in the muck at Slippery Rock as IUP battled back for a 34-28 victory in a white-knuckle overtime classic.
“Last [regular-season] game of the year, a game we needed to get into the playoffs, terrible field conditions, and we were trailing again,” said Eyerman, setting the scene. “But we just came together as a unit. Like so many other games, we did what we needed to do to win.”
That victory propelled IUP into the playoffs opposite Saginaw Valley State, the team that crawled out of a 32-7 halftime hole to stun the Indians in 2001. Eyerman torched the Cardinals with 377 yards passing—the fifth-best single-game total in school history—as IUP prevailed, 27-23.
“Coming into the game, I was just thinking about how they sent us home last year,” Ocasio said. “But we didn’t look at it as a revenge game. We just took it as a playoff game, a new season, a chance to get another win and keep advancing.”
Alas, the new season and the winning streak ended in excruciating fashion a week later at Grand Valley State. The Lakers, who went on to win the national title, bolted into an early lead and rolled to a 62-21 victory, dealing IUP its most lopsided loss since 1973. The Indians played as if in a fog on a day that featured blustery winds and snow squalls.
“I can’t explain what happened. I’ve talked to a lot of guys on the team and they can’t either,” Howard said. “We were ready to play, we were well prepared, we practiced well all week. But we just couldn’t do anything right that game. It was like nothing went our way.”
In contrast to the previous eleven games, when everything went their way. Yet the story of the 2002 season was not so much how it ended, but how a team clinging to playoff hopes slimmer than a supermodel refused to lose. For eleven weeks, the Indians were invincible. They had to be.
Their margin for error in that time was zero. And so was their loss total.