Maybe it was a premonition — IUP inside linebacker Drew DiNunzio-Biss at least had a feeling about Shepherd University.
IUP (10-1) is set to host Shepherd (12-1) in a NCAA Division II playoff game at 1 p.m. Saturday at George P. Miller Stadium in Indiana, Pa.
The Crimson Hawks defeated the Rams, 24-21, to win the PSAC championship Nov. 12 just three weeks before their looming Super Region One final showdown this weekend.
“It feels like we just played them yesterday,” said DiNunzio-Biss, a Kiski Area graduate. “Honestly, we kind of figured our paths would cross again at some point if we took care of business.”
After receiving a first-round bye, IUP knocked off Ashland, 19-13, Saturday to set up the rematch with Shepherd. The Rams defeated New Haven, 16-13, in the first round of the playoffs before dispatching Slippery Rock, 37-27, Saturday.
“In the playoffs, I don’t really know if momentum is the word to use,” IUP coach Paul Tortorella said. “You take each game as it comes, and once you advance it’s kind of time to put that to bed and get ready for the next one.
“We understand what Shepherd is,” he added. “They handled us pretty good up until the PSAC championship game the last couple times we played them.”
Slippery Rock has a pretty good idea of who Shepherd is, too.
The Rams rushed for 222 yards and threw for 372 against The Rock. Shepherd quarterback Tyson Bagent completed 28 of 45 passes for 372 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Slippery Rock, while running back Ronnie Brown carried the ball 20 times for 205 yards and a score, and Rodney Dorsey added a team-high five catches for 75 yards.
“They’re a pretty spread offense so they’re going to try and spread you out and get your eyes looking all over the place,” DiNunzio-Biss said. “The big thing for us is to be keying their top receiver and their running back. You know they’re going to be trying to get them the ball pretty much every play they can.”
DiNunzio-Biss and defensive back Naszhir Taylor, a Woodland Hills graduate, each registered a team-high nine tackles in IUP’s victory against Ashland. DiNunzio-Biss, who is IUP’s leading tackler with 78 on the season, added a second-quarter interception.
The Crimson Hawks are embracing the challenge of stopping Bagent — the reigning Harlon Hill Award winner and the nation’s leading passer, who has been invited to play in the Senior Bowl — for the second time in less than a month.
“If you think you’re just going to go out and stop them, that’s probably wishful thinking,” Tortorella said. “You’ve got to prevent the big play. You’ve got to make them earn it.”
The task of stopping the Rams’ high-powered offense will fall to IUP’s offense as well.
In the PSAC championship game victory, IUP quarterback Mak Sexton completed 19 of 29 passes for 169 yards and three touchdowns. Crimson Hawks running back Adam Houser carried the ball 21 times for 144 yards.
IUP possessed the football for 35:05, which was critical to the Crimson Hawks being able to come away with a victory the first time around.
Houser also carried the ball 33 times for 138 yards against Ashland and was complemented by Sexton, who threw for 142 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Wide receiver Hilton Ridley caught four passes for 41 yards and a touchdown against Ashland while Duane Brown, an Apollo-Ridge graduate, hauled in three passes for 35 yards and a score.
“That’s what we are, we’re a physical offense,” Tortorella said. “We run the ball first. We’re not going to get away from what we do. Obviously, we’ve got to be efficient and be consistent running the ball.”
Converting on third down will also be critical for IUP, Tortorella said.
“At the end of the day, we’ve just got to be efficient,” he said. “When we are efficient, we control the football. That’s one of the things we do because we run the ball.”
And IUP is looking forward to the opportunity to continue its postseason run.
“We’re going to go out and show them we’re a force to be reckoned with as well,” said DiNunzio-Biss.
NCAA Division III
No. 19 Carnegie Mellon (11-1) ran out to a seven-point, first-quarter lead in its second-round playoff game against No. 1 North Central, Ill. (12-0).
The Tartans faded over the game’s final three quarters, however, and saw their postseason run end with a 28-7 loss.
Carnegie Mellon had no answer for North Central’s potent rushing attack.
North Central running back Ethan Greenfield carried the ball 21 times for 135 yards and two touchdowns, while Luke Lehnen added 12 carries for 127 yards and one score.
The Tartans’ offense was paced by running back Tre Vasiliadis, who had 70 yards on the ground, while quarterback Ben Mills completed 8 of 17 passes for 79 yards and a touchdown.
North Central advances to face Ithaca in a DIII quarterfinal game Saturday. Ithaca advanced with a 31-20 quarterfinal victory against Springfield.