Stinging overtimes loss ends Shepherd’s season
A novelty for Shepherd football. The unusual extra session was needed on Saturday when the Rams stood stern against visiting Concord, an unbeaten Mountain East Conference rival.
Another seldom-seen facet regarding Shepherd football was the complete ownership of the special teams by the Mountain Lions.
While the tense afternoon at Ram Stadium had the Rams gaining more yardage, having fewer turnovers and far fewer penalties, it was the area of special teams that kept the Mountain Lions tugging at Shepherd’s shirttails . . . and then finally getting a 29-20 conference-winning overtime victory before an overflow crowd of more than 5,000 sun-sprinkled football enthusiasts.
Concord had a 92-yard kickoff return for a score by Tiko Henderson. It hurried a missed extra point try by Shepherd’s Mark Murphy. Garrett Lee, its punter, consistently outdid the Rams’ Ryan Earls. Lee dumped four punts inside the Shepherd 20 while Earls averaged only 27 yards per boot on his numerous efforts.
And, finally, the Mountain Lions smothered Murphy’s short 24-yard field goal attempt with the Rams trailing by three points in the overtime. Jeremiah Johnson recovered the missed field goal and ran it in for the final points in Concord’s win.
The weather cooperated. The back-and-forth nature of the most important of games was a leavening agent in the hold-your-breath struggle. Shepherd’s 93-yard, game-tying touchdown drive in the last two minutes of regulation made the suspense even thicker.
The pre-game circumstances were plainly etched.
Shepherd had to win to earn a share of the conference championship. To reach the NCAA Division II national playoffs for the third straight season, the Rams had to win. Concord was within reach of an 11-0 season . . . within reach of drawing the No. 1 seed in the Super Region One field in the playoffs that begin this weekend.
None of the game’s significance was lost on the Senior Day/Military Appreciation Day crowd of well-bundled fans that eventualy stood two-deep along the upper reaches of the homeside stands.
Shepherd showed its most significant trump card and advantage when it used timber tall and hugely talented receiver Billy Brown on its first play. Brown caught what became a 67-yard scoring pass from Jeff Ziemba and literally shoved the lone defender 15 yards into the end zone to give the Rams a quick-strike, 7-0 lead after one play.
Much later, Concord scored in much the same way when T.J. Smith got behind his defender and caught a 71-scoring pass from Brian Novak.
It was still 7-7 at halftime.
Shepherd had gained the only two turnovers in the opening half.
Early in the third quarter, Novak found Smith again on a long scoring pass. Only a missed extra point kept the Concord lead to 13-7.
Near the last of the third period, the Rams had Ziemba find William McKenzie on a long, across-the-field pass that resulted in a 19-yard touchdown. But the extra point try failed and it was a 13-13 game.
Tied. But only for the few seconds it took Henderson to flee 92 yards — brushing past Murphy along the sideline — to give the Mountain Lions a 20-13 lead.
In the fourth quarter, Shepherd ceded valuable field position when Earls’ punt was returned 40 yards to the Ram 40-yard line.
Concord reached the 11 with a first down, but was stalled by penalties and the Shepherd defense, forcing an Andy Ellington field goal attempt from the 24. Ellington hit the left upright of the goal post . . . and Shepherd was still trailing by seven points.
With just over three minutes remaining in regulation, Shepherd used its three timeouts as the Mountain Lions tried spending all the clock. A 44-yard Lee punt had the Rams pinned near death’s door at their own seven. Just under two minutes remained.
In no time, Ziemba found Brown (who had nine catches for 178 yards and two scores) on a 41-yard drive-starting pass/catch. The next play had Tony Squirewell on the receiving end of a 23-yard throw down to Concord’s 14.
With 39 seconds left, Ziemba aimed again toward Brown. Brown outfought his defender and had a score that brought the fast-closing Rams to within a single point. Murphy added the extra point and it was a 20-20 stalemate.
In the overtime, Shepherd held but saw Novak recover his own third-down fumble at the 26. . . forcing Concord and Ellington to attempt a 43-yard field goal. The try was true. And Concord had a 23-20 lead with Shepherd ready to go on offense from the opponent’s 25.
A seven-yard pass completion to Squirewell had Shepherd on the 11 with a first down. Ziemba ran for six yards, but subsequent tries lost two yards back to the seven. It was fourth down.
Murphy attempted his field goal from the 14. It was blocked — not partially blocked or tipped but completely smothered.
And the game was finished, leaving thousands of people either flushed with conference-championship happiness or stunned with season-ending disbelief.
Shepherd had been so dominant with its special teams for so long. Decades long.
And suddenly it was undone by a kickoff return, poor punting and an abrupt end to its season with a blocked field goal from the 14-yard line.