From West Virginia with some weapons
Shepherd’s championship game opponent Northwest Missouri State brings to its games as much swagger as any team in the nation. The Bearcats believe they are the best, and they have the national championships and visits to title games where they lost to prove it. And they are not hiding their light under any bushel basket. No shrinking violets are the Bearcats.
Northwest Missouri State fans will gather in large numbers in Kansas City on Saturday. The school is not too far away and people from that area naturally flock to see the Kansas City Royals play in the summer and the Kansas City Chiefs play in the fall/winter.
The Bearcats have been a national contender for many years. Not yet a full-faced dynasty, Northwest Missouri State often gives the impression that football victories and football championships are an ordained part of their noble heritage.
On the other hand, Shepherd doesn’t have the valued number of football scholarships the Bearcats have. Scholarships in sufficient numbers often give a school the competent depth teams need at this point in the season where injuries have taken players away from the coaches and their strategies.
The Rams have played 13 games, losing only a few players along the way but not losing any games.
Shepherd’s depth has a certain quality to it this season, not like in many seasons where very little could be found.
When the season began, there was some trepidation concerning the inexperienced offensive line. When Will Smith was injured at midseason, his absence was missed more than the time missed by linebackers Octavius Thomas and James Gupton. Thomas has been back playing for some time . . . and one of the reasons the Rams defeated Grand Valley State was because Gupton returned with his slew of tackles and useful knowledge of the game.
Angelo Jean-Louis scored six touchdowns and blocked punts and field goals, but the lithe wide receiver has missed three straight games. With receiver Dalton Boyd being injured against Grand Valley State, the Rams were using freshmen extensively in the second half.
Quarterback Connor Jessop was a classic example of a quality backup player with his poised and polished performance against a mostly fierce Laker pass rush.
Shepherd’s defensive front has more trustworthy players than the school has ever seen at one time. Shaneil Jenkins, Isaiah Ross, Myles Humphrey, Elijah Norris, Tatah Ndeh, Marshall Mundin, DJ Cornish, Shaquille Melvin, Ryan Sturdivant, James King and Demetrius Dixon have been interwoven and interchanged in almost magical ways by the coaching staff. And no team has really found the means or the secrets of how to consistently run against the Rams.
Shepherd’s best qualities are found in its intelligent and savvy linebackers. Gupton, Thomas, Jaylen Johnson and reserve Cameron Reynolds are the cornerstones of a group trusted to the end to make the majority of the tackles . . . and provide substantial help to the secondary manned by Tre Sullivan, C.J. Davis, Adam Coles, Keon Robinson and reserve Antonio Smith.
Freshman punter Ruan Venter has been a welcome addition to the special teams. Kicker Ryan Earls has done well enough, especially with his end zone kickoffs, to help with field position and long snapper Nick Barmoy has been near flawless in an important role that is too often overlooked.
The Rams have reached the pinnacle of football at the school. And they are still playing. And going to Kansas City with some weapons that are equal or superior to those coming with Northwest Missouri State.
Receiver Billy Brown has no equal in all of the NCAA Division II ranks.
Gupton is a stern playmaker who finds his way to ball carriers.
Sullivan is a premier free safety.
Jessop will deliver complete passes if he is given time often enough by his offensive line.
Thomas and Jaylen Johnson will turn in their usual blue collar games and be found all over the defensive statistical sheet.
Still Shepherd is the distinct underdog to the team with all the history and all the confidence that blueblood history breeds.
Few people in the Midwest know about the Rams and just as few care to learn about them.
But without a debilitating and inordinate number of lost fumbles, interceptions, penalties and injuries these Rams could wipe the collective smirks off the faces of the Bearcats from Missouri.
Missouri is the “Show Me State”. Shepherd is in Kansas City to show their championship game opponent a team that has a 13-0 record for a reason . . . and that reason is a cohesive team of players whose skills aren’t the only tangible they bring to this last game of the halcyon season.