The best two defenses in Division II football gathered last Saturday at Ram Stadium. They lived up to their billing. No. 2 got the better of No. 1, however, in a clash of teams nicknamed Rams.
And Shepherd - second rated in total defense and first in the seeding - scored just enough points to gain a 7-0 victory over Winston-Salem State.
Shepherd paired consecutive big offensive plays late in the third quarter for the only touchdown of the game and advance to its second Super Region 1 championship game in four seasons. Shepherd won the title in 2010.
Shepherd will play West Chester - Golden Rams - in the super region final at home tomorrow after West Chester avenged a regular-season loss by defeating Bloomsburg 40-38.
"I think if you look at the No. 1 and No. 2 defenses in Division II, you got to see why today," Shepherd coach Monte Cater said. "We had just enough offense to get ourselves ahead."
Shepherd coach Monte Cater said earlier this week Winston-Salem State would be the best team his Rams had faced in his 27 years at Shepherd.
As a result, he deemed his team's defensive effort the best ever.
The statistics for the offenses - or lack thereof -were befitting of a pair hard-driving, stingy defenses.
Each team punted nine times as one piece of evidence to the effectiveness of the two defensive units.
Shepherd held Winston-Salem to 159 yards of total offense, while Shepherd managed 247 against Winston-Salem -more than its 232-yard average entering play.
Fifty of Shepherd's yards came on back-to-back plays and accounted for the only score of the game.
Quarterback Jeff Ziemba of Shepherd found Kevin Cook, likely playing only because of so many injuries to Shepherd's receiving corps, open on a seam route for a 21-yard reception on third down to put the ball at Winston-Salem's 29-yard line.
"He's had a couple of big catches in the last two ballgames," Cater said.
One play later, Alan Cross took a handoff to the left, bounced outside and found clear territory to the goal line for a 29-yard touchdown run.
"We just had to execute," Cross said. "It was one drive.
"That big catch, we had momentum. (Jamie) Deason had a big block to spring me."
After that, it was up to Shepherd's defense to hold the lead.
The unit, which caught a break in the first half when a wide-open Eric Williams dropped a pass at the goal line on a fourth-down pass from backup quarterback DeShean Townsend, had to clamp down when Winston-Salem advanced to the Shepherd 15 when Maurice Lewis broke away for 55 yards on a swing pass.
Passes on first and third downs fell incomplete. In between, Lewis ran for two yards.
After a timeout, Townsend tried to hit Williams at the 5, but Levi Barber broke up the pass.
That ended scoring threats for either team.
"They made one more play than we did," Winston-Salem coach Connell Maynor said.
Townsend came in relief of starter Rudy Johnson, who suffered a collarbone injury during one of two sacks he suffered on two series.
"(Townsend) fought hard," Maynor said. "It limited us because we like to use our quarterback as a runner. We didn't want to take a chance, because we only had one quarterback left. We only dressed two.
"Their defensive line was probably a little better than I thought they were. They played in our backfield all day."
Five different Shepherd players sacked the two quarterbacks six times, led by Shaneil Jenkins' two.
"I don't think so," Shepherd defensive end Howard Jones said, then added, "We can always improve."
Winston-Salem lamented the dropped pass in the first half.
"It was a mistake on him, but mistakes happen," said Townsend, who completed 12 of 35 passes for 135 yards and suffered one of two interceptions thrown by Winston-Salem quarterbacks.
"It probably could've changed the game," Townsend added. "That mistake probably cost us."
Shepherd, too, missed out on six points when all-Mountain State Conference kicker Ryan Earls missed a pair of field goals.
The first miss -from 41 yards - came five minutes into the game after Octavius Thomas picked off a tipped pass and returned it to Winston-Salem's 17.
"I worried when we didn't get that field goal," Cater said.
Earls missed his second try, also hooking it wide leftfrom 27 yards, early in the fourth quarter on a fourth-and-1 shortly after Ziemba and Justin Ford hooked up on a 40-yard pass play.
Ziemba completed 12 of 21 passes for 112 yards. He suffered an interception on a tipped ball that Carlos Fields of Winston-Salem virtually scooped up before it could hit the turf.
Cross rushed for 60 yards and Jabre Lolley 89, with neither Shepherd running back suffering a negative-yardage play.
"It's always nice to strap on the pads one more time," Cross said.
Especially the way his team's defense was strapping it on Winston-Salem.