Air raid offense moves Shepherd to 10-0 with playoffs ahead
Even though the air was crisper than Shepherd’s injury-struck team, the Rams moved past Urbana, 52-20, on an afternoon where the team’s seniors were feted one last time and the scent of the Super Region One playoffs blew through Ram Stadium like the sweet smell of firewood smoldering in a Shepherdstown fireplace.
Shepherd had accomplished the school’s fifth unbeaten regular season . . . and secured a 10-0 record and the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Division II regional playoffs that actually begin at three sites this weekend.
The Rams will be idle on November 21 and join the much-anticipated postseason free-for-all the next weekend when they host the winner of the Indiana (Pa.) vs. Charleston (WV) game.
The idle weekend was also much-anticipated by the Shepherd staff what with injuries to Jaylen Johnson, James Gupton, Keon Robinson, Phillip Rhoden and Will Smith. Rhoden and Smith are out for the remainder of the season, but the absence of defenders Johnson, Gupton and Robinson against Urbana was too noticeable.
There was no sense of urgency along the Shepherd sideline as the Rams with a jury-rigged defense took on the Blue Knights.
But the Rams took care of the business of staying undefeated and did it with six touchdown passes, five from starter Jeff Ziemba.
Urbana was vulnerable, showing the unsightly signs of a team that would finish its season with a 2-9 overall record.
Even before some of the late-arriving in the crowd of about 4,500 had found their seats, the Rams had recovered a Blue Knight fumble in midair and then scored on their second play from scrimmage when Dalton Boyd made an acrobatic, one-handed touchdown catch of a Ziemba throw.
But Ryan Earls missed a 36-yard field goal try, Ryan Feiss was twice penalized for block-in-the-back infractions on punt returns and Levonte Hights had two false start penalties — all before the first quarter ended.
The second quarter saw the Rams unload 28 points on the beleaguered Urbana defense and offense.
Ziemba had three more touchdown passes. A masterful bit of trickery saw receiver Tony Squirewell move out as if to block on what appeared to be a flanker screen to Billy Brown. But Squirewell didn’t block. He sailed past a defender and was alone when he accepted one of his two scoring throws from Ziemba.
The Rams had scored twice in the quarter’s last two minutes to take a 35-13 lead into halftime.
Cameron Reynolds, Ryan Plowman and Connor Simpson were manning the linebacker posts for the Ram defense and Antonio Smith was a new face in the secondary as regulars were rested in hopes of returning to health for the playoffs.
The Rams had the game’s only 10 points in the third period when Brown used his size in a pure mismatch against an Urbana defender to make a TD catch and Earls was true on a 35-yard field goal try.
Reserve quarterback Connor Jessop found tight end Jamie Deason, who was making his third catch of the season, for Shepherd’s only fourth-quarter points.
Ziemba, who actually led the nation in passing efficiency entering the day, had five touchdown passes and completed 28 of 37 throws and Squirewell, Boyd and Brown accounted for 297 receiving yards and 20 receptions in contributing their skills to the Shepherd offense on Senior Day.
Another week of rehabilitation was gained for those valued starters who missed the team’s 10th win.
They all will be needed when either Indiana or Charleston visits Ram Stadium on November 28 for the Super Region One semifinals.
And the smell of burning firewood and the arcing spirals of Ziemba will again be in the air.