Shepherd needs all its starters against Indiana
If Jaylen Johnson, James Gupton and Keon Robinson have recovered from injuries that were serious enough to keep them out of Shepherd games, then the Rams can beat Indiana’s Crimson Hawks in Saturday’s NCAA Division II Super Region One semifinal game.
If any of those three defensive standouts is missing, then Shepherd’s task becomes much more difficult.
Indiana will be the best team the Rams have seen this season.
In the first round of the playoffs, Indiana outscored Charleston (WV), 41-7, in the second half to record a 47-21 win over the Golden Eagles. The Rams stopped Charleston, 45-25, back in early September when they were beginning their march toward a 10-0 regular season.
Indiana’s season showed one-point losses to Kutztown (34-33) in its opener and then a one-point loss at Slippery Rock (40-39) just after midseason. The record is now 9-2 and was achieved with a freshman quarterback, Lenny Williams, and Chris Temple, their running back who has 1,146 rushing yards and 5.7 yards per carry average. Williams ran for 1,237 yards and 8.7 yards per try. He also completed 111 of his 187 throws for 1,423 yards and nine scores. Williams suffered only four interceptions along the way.
Curt Cignetti is Indiana’s coach. He is the son of Frank Cignetti, one-time head coach at WVU. When Frank Cignetti was fired in Morgantown, he became the successful head coach at Indiana and led the school to many playoff dates.
The younger Cignetti has a 43-14 record.
Against Charleston last week, the Crimson Hawks ran for 347 yards . . . but won the game in the second half by causing four Charleston turnovers and having Diamond Jones block a punt for the second straight week.
There is some NCAA playoff history between Shepherd and Indiana. When Shepherd’s James Rooths blocked a punt in 1998, the Rams defeated Indiana, 9-6. Again in 2007, Shepherd pushed the Crimson Hawks out of the playoffs with a 41-34 win in Shepherdstown. And just recently in 2012, Indiana had a 27-17 win in a game played in Pennsylvania.
Shepherd was without Gupton, Johnson, Robinson, Will Smith and Phillip Rhoden when it crushed Urbana in its last regular season game on November 14. Gupton didn’t play the week before in a win at Fairmont and had been missing in an earlier game.
Weapons are not in short supply if checking the Shepherd arsenal.
Wide receiver Billy Brown has all-MEC quarterback Jeff Ziemba throwing to him. Brown already has over 1,000 receiving yards and had six games this season where his catches totaled more than 100 yards. To be safe on Saturday, the Rams have to throw early and often to Brown and never use him as just a decoy.
Starting defensive back and return man C.J. Davis could be a vital ingredient in any win over Indiana, especially with his punt and kickoff returns.
The Rams have their own punt-blocking specialist in Angelo Jean-Louis, who also might trouble the Crimson Hawks as a wide receiver.
Ruan Ventor has been an effective punter and placekicker Ryan Earls could decide this game either way with his speciality.
Shepherd has tried to replace injured offensive tackle Will Smith with Khalil Proctor, who will be in the spotlight against a Indiana team that had 37 sacks.
Shepherd has been vastly successful at home in Ram Stadium where this week’s expected crowd of more than 5,500 could be a vocal menace to the visiting Crimson Hawks. An afternoon where temperatures are expected to reach the 50’s could mean a record crowd could hover close to the artificial turf and try to pull the Rams past Indiana, over on the other side where its large marching band and useful number of followers coming from western Pennsylvania will be as loud and forceful as possible.
The unbeaten Rams have been surviving with starters missing a number of games. None of the replacements for any of those starters can approximate what the regulars contribute in terms of playmaking, experience and general effectiveness.
Indiana is a measure of Pennsylvania football. And the Rams will need all their blue-clad hands on board to advance to the finals of the regional set to be staged on Dec. 5.