Unbeaten Shepherd rises to top of Super Region One
Since the season began, Shepherd has been a legitimate contender for both conference and Super Region One honors.
Surging along an unbeaten trail through their first six opponents, the Rams never scored fewer than 41 points in any game.
As they leveled opponents, their stature grew in the region that houses four different leagues.
Shepherd became a team that was versatile enough to win with a number of weapons in its blue and gold quiver.
But Concord hadn’t been played. It was Concord that had kept the Rams out of the 2014 playoffs when it downed them in last season’s final game.
Last Saturday, Shepherd and Concord met in a high-octane, bare knuckle heavyweight battle down in Athens.
And Shepherd’s stature kept on rising as it posted a seat-squirming 35-28 win over the host Mt. Lions in a nerve-wracking game that wasn’t decided until the Rams scored the final points with only 1:44 to play, shattering a 28-28 stalemate that attested to the near-equal status of the two programs.
Earlier this week, Shepherd received the national ranking it wanted.
Officialdom at NCAA Division II headquarters in Indianapolis ranked the Rams No. 1 in Super Region One. That rating group decides which teams will be invited to the national playoffs. Shepherd may be undefeated, but its win over Concord gave it the credentials to be placed atop all the other teams in its region.
Finding superlatives and showcasing the statistics delivered by Shepherd players against Concord was an easy task.
Two Rams — placekicker Ryan Earls and linebacker James Gupton — were accorded Player of the Week honors in the Mountain East Conference. Earls booted field goals of 41, 32 and 33 yards and didn’t miss either of his extra point tries. He reached the Concord end zone on seven of his eight kickoffs.
Gupton had a Shepherd season-high 14 tackles, none more important to the game’s outcome than the stop he made on Calvinaugh Jones on a fourth-and-one play in Mountain Lion territory with about four minutes to play and the game tied.
Gupton was joined as a defensive standout by Keon Robinson (11 tackles), Tre Sullivan (nine stops) and Shaneil Jenkins (two sacks, three tackles for lost yardage and a fumble recovery).
Shepherd quarterback Jeff Ziemba and wide receiver Billy Brown threatened to stage a two-man wrecking crew against the harried Concord defense. Ziemba, now a three-year starter, produced a career high 374 passing yards with his 21 completions on 30 attempts. He had a touchdown throw to Dalton Boyd and did not suffer any interceptions. Brown had 10 catches for 185 yards, none more vital to the end-game scenario than the 13-yarder that had the Rams on the Concord threshold at the three where Jabre Lolley wriggled in to score in the fading minutes.
Concord had given itself every chance to win with Brian Novak throwing for three scores and 283 yards and Jones rushing for about 150 yards. Jameil Douse caught 10 passes for 164 yards.
Shepherd’s record read 7-0. Concord was at 4-4 with all its losses coming by seven points or fewer.
This weekend, it’s upset-minded West Liberty coming to Ram Stadium for a 12-noon game that will see if the Rams have moved forward in their collective thinking and are not caught believing the win over stubborn Concord makes them world-beaters.
The Rams had turned in still another turnover-free game . . . and had been rewarded with a hard-work victory against a quality team.
And they will be 7-0 and rated first in their region when the special teams, offense, defense and each individual’s contributions will be weighed against what West Liberty can and cannot do against them.