What a difference three weeks make.

Top-seeded IUP (10-2) was knocked out of the NCAA Division II playoffs Saturday after being overwhelmed by a prolific offensive effort by No. 2 seed Shepherd (13-1), which dispatched of the Crimson Hawks, 48-13, at George P. Miller Stadium in Indiana in the Super Region One final.

Just 21 days earlier, IUP handled Shepherd, 24-21, in the same stadium to capture its fifth PSAC championship.

“Obviously disappointing finish for us,” IUP coach Paul Tortorella said. “The game got away from us. You’ve got to give Shepherd credit. They played a great game. They outplayed us. They outcoached us. It’s the same team three weeks ago that we beat, obviously. We just got behind and things started to snowball on us.”

The difference in the rematch between the PSAC juggernauts was the play of Shepherd’s offense.

Standout Rams quarterback Tyson Bagent, the reigning Harlon Hill award winner, completed 19 of 28 passes Saturday for 231 yards and four touchdowns, while Rams running back Ronnie Brown carried the ball 27 times for 141 yards and two additional scores.

In rainy conditions during the PSAC championship game, Bagent threw for 304 yards and two touchdowns, but tossed two critical interceptions. Brown was held to 32 yards and one score on just eight carries.

“To state the obvious, it was a great win for our team, a great win for our program,” Shepherd coach Ernie McCook said. “To come into a place three weeks later and play the No. 1-ranked team in the region, that really put a really good game plan against us in the PSAC championship game, to be able to find a way to win this football game in the fashion that we did was a real credit to our coaches, our players and everybody that was involved.

“We’ve been told the revenge factor, everything like that, it wasn’t revenge,” he added. “We are a program that wants to win football games. We want to win the right way. I couldn’t be more proud of these guys right here.”

IUP, however, opened Saturday’s game and looked as if it might continue its success against Shepherd.

Crimson Hawks quarterback Mak Sexton capped a nine-play, 53-yard drive with an 18-yard touchdown pass to Cole Laney that handed the home team a 7-0 advantage with 8:35 left in the first quarter.

Sexton would complete 16-of-30 passes for 210 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He tossed a 3-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown to wide receiver Duane Brown, an Apollo-Ridge graduate, in the fourth quarter when the game was out of reach.

“It’s always great to get off to a hot start and be able to drive down the field and get points up on the board,” Sexton said. “I was happy we were able to do that today, but it just didn’t translate to the rest of the game.”

After IUP’s early touchdown drive, Shepherd responded and completely took control of the contest.

The Rams scored seven unanswered touchdowns during a scoring streak, which culminated with the Rams taking a 48-7 lead when Klayton Batten returned an interception 28 yards for a score with 14:12 left in the fourth quarter.

“You get behind and you’re playing uphill the rest of the game,” Tortorella said.

Bagent started the Shepherd scoring with three touchdown passes before halftime. The senior connected with Cameron Dorner for a score from 18 yards out, before finding Brian Walker for a 17-yard touchdown and Brown for a 3-yard score. Bagent’s scoring pass to Walker was the 158th touchdown pass of his career, setting a new NCAA all-division record held previously by Alex Tanney of Monmouth Illinois from 2007-11.

Brown took it from there in the second half scoring on a 4-yard touchdown run, a 17-yard pass from Bagent and another 2-yard run that gave the Rams a commanding 42-7 lead with 4:25 left in the third quarter.

“We’ve gone three weeks, three playoff games, without a turnover,” McCook said. “I think that’s the key to how we can play offensively.

“I thought we were able to control the line of scrimmage for the second week in a row,” he added. “The way Tyson keeps us in the right plays, the guy makes plays. He’s the best player in the country. Hands down he should be the Harlon Hill winner again.”

IUP was held to just 48 yards on the ground, led by running back Adam Houser who rushed for 48 yards on 22 carries.

“I was surprised,” Tortorella said. “We didn’t run the ball very well.

“They stuffed it,” he added. “They did a great job.”

Brown, whose touchdown was the 50th of his collegiate career, led the Crimson Hawks with 65 yards on five catches while Cam Suman added 49 yards on three catches.

Heavy winds during the game wreaked havoc on the IUP passing attack, Sexton said.

“It definitely made a difference,” he said. “Just throwing it down the field into the wind you really had no idea where it’s going to end up once it gets 20, 30 yards down the field whereas with the wind you have a pretty good feeling of what the wind’s going to do to the ball. We didn’t make the most out of it when we had the wind and didn’t do very much when we didn’t have the wind. It is what it is. We’ve got to get better.”

John is a copy editor and page designer at the Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at jsanta@unionprogress.com.

John Santa

John is a copy editor and page designer at the Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at jsanta@unionprogress.com.