Tense comeback win moves Shepherd to national quarterfinals
Witnessed by a turnout that numbered more than the listed capacity of 5,000 at raucous Ram Stadium, Shepherd made a hold-your-breath, last-quarter comeback to bring down Indiana, 17-13, in a NCAA Division II regional game that will have many of those in attendance talking about the twists and turns of the gray afternoon for years to come.
Shepherd’s unbeaten season was on the precipice of its first failure when the game lurched into the fourth quarter with the Crimson Hawks holding a contentious 10-point lead.
The Indiana sideline had most of its players and coaches raise four fingers as they indicated the fourth quarter always belongs to them.
But it was Shepherd that had four fingers wrapped around a knife that would use wide receiver Billy Brown and an emotionally kindled defense to cut down Indiana, leading to two Rams touchdowns and an escape into this week’s national quarterfinal bout against once-beaten Slippery Rock.
Brown was the featured executioner in the demise of the Crimson Hawks.
With just over two minutes left in the nerve-wracking fourth period, Brown used his immense athleticism to literally grab a Jeff Ziemba pass from a defender in the Indiana end zone . . . and the Rams had overcome enough unfortunate circumstances to spill the Crimson Hawk lead on those same four fingers that had shortly before predicted their ownership of the unusually warm-for-late-November day.
Brown was catching his 11th pass, and was completing a performance that had never been seen in all the years Shepherd had been playing football, either across the highway at Fairfax Field or in loud-and-loyal Ram Stadium.
Adding what he did to the Crimson Hawks, Brown surged past team records for single-season receptions and yardage gained from those receptions.
His near-Herculean game was needed to win Shepherd’s 11th straight success of the 2015 season.
Misfortune had dogged many of the steps the Rams took.
The most grievous of the missteps came in the third quarter. Indiana had struck with a long pass completion that had carried to the Shepherd one. The Crimson Hawks already led, 6-3. Shepherd held fast, throwing slippery-hipped quarterback Denny Williams for a loss and finally bringing on the Indiana field goal specialist.
The Rams blocked the field goal attempt. And then things became a maze of tangled bodies thrashing for control of the loose football.
Shepherd could advance the missed kick if it could get permanent possession. But it couldn’t.
After what seemed like an interminable amount of time and several huddles by the game officials, it was ruled Shepherd once had possession but fumbled it back into a mass of players from both teams. A player from Indiana had almost nonchalantly picked up the football and casually walked into the Ram end zone.
The officials eventually ruled the play had resulted in an Indiana touchdown. And the Crimson Hawks had a 13-3 lead from what had appeared to all as a blocked field goal and a resilient Shepherd goal line stand.
And then came the definitive fourth quarter call to arms by the Rams.
Over the course of that last quarter, Shepherd scored twice. And its defense registered the only two sacks it managed against Williams.
Brown had two of his many receptions on a drive that was only ended when Jabre Lolley scored on a five-yard run.
The Shepherd deficit was only three points. And the Ram defense forced another punt.
As the clock moved toward all zeros, Shepherd had somehow crept ever so slowly to the Indiana 28.
It was then that the 6-foot-4, 232-pound Brown outmaneuvered, out-everythinged a smaller Indiana defender for the season-maintaining catch.
Even with a stand-transfixed-in-your-seat four-point lead, the game was not decided.
Indiana moved ahead toward possibly saving its season.
But Shepherd and its staunch defense would have none of it.
On Indiana’s last play, the Shepherd defense had two reserves on field because both Keon Robinson and Adam Coles had been injured on the previous play.
Williams hurried his last-gasp throw and overthrew a receiver . . . and the forged revolution that capsized the four-fingered ownership of the fourth quarter had been finished in Shepherd’s favor.
The 11-0 Rams return to friendly and oft-inspiring Ram Stadium this Saturday to see The Rock, as Slippery Rock sells itself these days. The Rock is 12-1 overall, having crushed West Chester in the PSAC championship game and turned away both Virginia Union and Assumption in the Super Region One playoffs.
Saturday’s survivor will find itself in the national semifinals with only three other teams.
An encore of the Shepherd-Indiana game might be too much to ask for, but could happen if the Rams have all their players available except for James Gupton, Will Smith and Phillip Rhoden.
At any rate, it’s the national quarterfinals with the Shepherd students back on campus after the Thanksgiving break . . . and the overflow crowd brimming with the just-seen memories of the Shepherd win over Indiana still in their hoarse throats.