The Rock falls to unbeaten Rams
The brick and mortar walls of Ram stadium were bursting at the seams. Those gathered in its expanse were standing near aisles, watching two-deep along walls, finding a little room to see the Shepherd-Slippery Rock NCAA Division II national playoff game from any vantage point they could find.
The stadium had never seen as many fans. Those among the at least 5,500 devotees that were stationed in the west stands behind the Shepherd bench made their vocal presence felt. They were at their noisy and enthusiastic best during the third quarter when the Rams scored three touchdowns and were their on-field best in an emotion-filled duel that ended with Shepherd staying unbeaten with a pulsating, 28-16, victory that propelled it into this week’s national semifinals against near-legend Grand Valley State, a nine-time semifinalist since 2001.
Shepherd and The Rock traded haymakers enough to keep the game’s pace moving along like a testing race car on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.
Neither team could create any lasting momentum because of the litany of penalties walked off against both sides. The stakes were such that many mistakes were magnified because they either halted drives or gave them new life.
The Rock was a “no huddle” team that attempted to minimize Shepherd’s ability to substitute. But the Rams ran in four new defenders at a time and never succumbed to the fast pace that gave the PSAC champions 86 offensive plays in all.
Shepherd found itself trailing by a touchdown when The Rock’s Shamar Greene scored from the two on fourth down. Shepherd quarterback Jeff Ziemba was rushed hard and hurried on nearly all his throws. He was sacked for a 12-yard loss on his first attempt to throw.
Even with its offense unable to manage much yardage, the Rams and their defense were little by little finding ways to frustrate Slippery Rock’s fast-paced intentions.
Penalties crept to center stage. And stayed right there. Slippery Rock was penalized 11 times for 120 yards . . . in the first half. Shepherd was tagged six times for 63 yards in the half that closed with a 7-7 tie because Shepherd had a 16-yard scoring catch from Tony Squirewell. The Ziemba-to-Squirewell pass/catch actually finished off a 99-yard scoring drive for the buoyed-by-the-crowd Rams.
The Rock had 28 offensive plays in the first period, but only 11 more in the next quarter.
Ziemba had been sacked three times by halftime, while Slippery Rock engineer Dante Nania had not been sacked.
After the many thousands tried catching their breath during the halftime break, then came the touchdown-filled third period.
The Rams controlled the early minutes because their defense negated a Ziemba interception with their stops, and then Billy Brown caught a mid-range pass that Ziemba had time to throw. Brown shrugged off a tackler and outran a few pursuers for a 74-yard score that was spiced in no time by two more Shepherd scores.
Keon Robinson forced a fumble that he recovered on The Rock 10. On the next play, Allen Cross fled through a large hole provided by his blockers and upped Shepherd’s lead to 19-7.
A third down pass to Jabre Lolley maintained the next Shepherd move . . . and from The Rock 27, Cross bolted into the secondary, ran over two would-be tacklers and made it a 25-7 Shepherd lead.
Slippery Rock couldn’t run against the stingy Shepherd defense. Nania was beginning to feel additional heat from the rush when he wanted to thrown.
But he had time to complete three passes on a half-minute drive that was over quickly when Jaimire Dutrieuille made a reception that brought The Rock to within 25-14.
Andrew Huska’s punt pinched the Rams back to their one from where Ziemba was dumped in his end zone for a safety that clipped Shepherd’s lead to 25-16.
In the fourth period, Shepherd’s Robinson, who had 11 tackles, made a 72-yard punt return, but Shepherd had to make do with Ryan Earls’ 27-yard field to push to a 28-16 lead.
Nania, who threw 53 times, was being greeted too often by Shepherd linemen Elijah Norris and Isaiah Ross as the Rams found routes through to him on his pass attempts.
Norris would get 2.5 sacks and Ross another 1.5 sacks as that twosome also combined on four plays that resulted in lost running yardage for the by now hard-pressed Slippery Rock offense. Shaneil Jenkins blocked a field goal, had a sack and made two stops for lost yards on runs.
Shepherd’s active linebackers and secondary also followed the mid- to late-game theme of slowly taking control.
Octavius Thomas and C.J. Davis each had nine tackles.
Earls’ field goal was the only scoring in the last quarter.
As the final seconds of the weather-perfect afternoon faded, the active and appreciative crowd was left to wonder where the unbeaten (12-0) Rams would be next in their quest for playoff longevity.
The sardine-packed people found the next opponent to be Grand Valley State from Michigan. And later it was announced the national semifinal game would take place in Shepherd’s Ram Stadium at 12-noon on Saturday, Dec.12.
Another chance for a record crowd to add its juice to Shepherd’s effort at setting more school records since the Rams of past seasons have never won more than 12 games nor advanced farther than the national semifinals.