First game will be real test for Rams
There’s no easing into the new football season for Shepherd, and especially for invading Notre Dame.
When Shepherd defeated Urbana last November, it finished off a second straight unbeaten regular season for the highly ranked Rams.
When Notre Dame completed its 11-game schedule with a 9-2 record, it wanted a spot in the playoffs. The NCAA did not come forth with that bid and the Falcons had to be satisfied with the best record in school history.
Shepherd’s 38-17 win over the Falcons probably had much to do with Notre Dame staying on the sidelines while seven other teams joined the playoff fun.
The NCAA and its affiliate ESPN have collaborated and jointly figured this will be one of the most entertaining and important games to be played on Saturday. Because of the stature of each team, and the records they had in 2016, the NCAA/ESPN team has decided to televise it to the nation on ESPN3.
Last year, the Rams were not a victim of Notre Dame quarterback Malik Grove and running back D.J. Greene. Grove could complete only 14 of his 30 throws for 205 yards. He had two touchdown passes, but was sacked three times. Grove’s dual-threat abilities were mostly negated because he ran 20 times but gained only 26 yards for a 1.3 yards per try average. Greene, who had over 1,000 rushing yards for the season, was equally muzzled by the Shepherd defense. He ran 16 times for 22 yards or a 1.4 yards per try average.
And it’s the Shepherd defense which returns eight starters from 2016’s undefeated regular season.
Three of the team’s five captains are from the defense. James Gupton, Myles Humphrey and Tre Anderson are the captains from the defensive unit. Historically, Shepherd teams don’t let any runner rush for over 100 yards. And Notre Dame will have to make some inroads along the ground to keep Grove upright and in his pocket long enough to find his receivers.
What will the Rams show the opening-game crowd with an offense that has a host of the new starters?
The expected large gathering hasn’t seen much of quarterback Connor Jessop, but those people that attended the December 2015 national semifinal win over Grand Valley State remember the 6-foot-4 senior completing 20 of 25 passes and literally guiding the Rams to a 34-32 win.
Jabre Lolley is back after not playing last season. Linemen Lavonte Hights, Jaime Colon and Levi Lloyd are returning starters. Only Ryan Feiss has done much for the much-depleted corps of wide receivers. Feiss had five catches for 100 yards against the Falcons last season.
The Rams have a tried and true punter in Ryun Venter.
For many years now, Shepherd has been able to block punts and even field goals with one of its special teams.
But for just as many years, the Rams have also been one of the most penalized teams in the country.
Before last season, Notre Dame literally had to outscore its opponents, However, in 2016 the Falcons averaged giving up just over 21 points a game. Shepherd helped inflate that number with its 38 points when it beat Notre Dame by 21 points in Ohio.
Grove and Greene were controlled last year. Will Jessop, Lolley and company paint the scoreboard blue and gold, or will the Rams benefit most from their mostly experienced defense?
Saturday’s nationally televised game has those answers.