The Indiana University of Pennsylvania Crimson Hawks have boasted one of the top defenses in the country in NCAA Division II football this fall, allowing just over 12 points per game.
IUP carries a 12-1 season record into Saturday's showdown with undefeated Winston-Salem State (12-0) in the quarterfinal round of the Division II national playoffs. Kickoff is set for noon at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston Salem, N.C.
Two starters on IUP's defensive unit, fifth-year senior strong safety Johnny Franco and redshirt junior free safety Chris Brown, know that the Hawks' defense will have its work cut out for it Saturday against a high-powered Winston-Salem State offense that has averaged nearly 45 points per game.
But they're ready for the challenge.
"They're undefeated, they're very good,'' Brown, a 2009 Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic High School graduate, said of the Winston-Salem State team. "The game is down there in North Carolina. We've basically been underdogs every week this season. Nobody thinks we can win. But we don't care what other people say. We play for each other, we play as a team, and we think we can win every game.''
Franco, a 2008 Tyrone graduate, believes that ball control will be vital in Saturday's game.
"I think our offensive line will be the key,'' he said. "If we can control the ball and run the ball, we can keep [Winston- Salem State's] offense off the field. Their offense is explosive, and can score at any time.''
The 5-foot-9, 200-pound Franco and the 6-foot, 190-pound Brown are joined on the IUP team by 2008 Hollidaysburg High School grad Pat Smith, a 6-5, 235-pound fifth-year senior punter.
Franco, a three-year starter in IUP's secondary who transferred to the school after two years at Army, has made 58 tackles - 37 solo - in 12 games for the Hawks this season. He's also intercepted six passes.
Brown has 48 tackles - 25 solo - in 13 games, while Smith has averaged nearly 37 yards on punts this season.
Brown said that the three are close friends.
"I grew up in the same neighborhood with Johnny,'' Brown said. "We're basically like brothers. Our parents and grandparents are best friends. I grew up in Johnny's backyard in Altoona playing sports. I met Pat Smith in junior high school and we became close friends. He basically gave me a tour of the IUP campus before I decided to go there.''
Paul Tortorella, IUP's veteran defensive coordinator, said that Franco and Brown have been key parts of the defensive unit.
"Johnny Franco is the quarterback of our defense,'' Tortorella said. "He's been a three-year starter for me. Having him out there is like having another coach on the field. He's always around the football, he shows a lot of leadership, and he makes the right calls.
"Chris Brown has been a great team player for us,'' Tortorella said. "He has a very good football IQ. He knows what to do and when to do it. As a coach, you know what you're going to get with those two guys on defense. Neither of them will ever blow a coverage or a play call.''
Like Franco, Smith is winding up his IUP football career this season. He hopes to go out in a blaze of glory with the school's first national championship.
"It's been an eventful ride,'' said Smith, who saw considerable time at quarterback for IUP earlier in his career. "I'll never forget the opportunity we've had this season. The team has had great success. We hope it can continue through the rest of the playoffs.''