Shepherd opener is a win but reveals problems
There were niceties around, the most important being a 27-12 win for Shepherd in its season-opener at Ram Stadium against visiting West Virginia Wesleyan.
Former coach Walter Barr and many of his assistants were recognized. Current coach Monte Cater received an award from Mountain East Conference Commissioner Reid Amos. And long-time fan Charlie Kave’s bicycle that he rode to Shepherd practices was in an end zone where it has been for years and years.
Following last season’s jaunt to the NCAA Division II national championship game, Shepherd had areas where replacements were necessary. Not only had a long list of 2015 seniors left, leaving the need for new-face starters, but a significant number of players with remaining eligibility did not return this season.
An all-new cast of running backs, finding a reliable place kicker, a reorganized defensive secondary, several defensive linemen and a need at wide receiver were on the lengthy list of changes or needs the Rams had.
After disposing of the Bobcats, any reflection on the 15-point win could find some bright-spot areas . . . and other places where no suitable answers were found from the afternoon where nearly 5,000 fans enjoyed the low-humidity and sunny conditions.
In the past, Shepherd has been often penalized — averaging about 10 infractions a game and 100 yards in walk-offs. On Saturday, the Rams had only four penalties against them. Second-year punter Ruan Venter lofted a 58-yarder that penned the Bobcats near their end zone, and led directly to a Shepherd touchdown.
Receivers Ryan Feiss (10 catches) and All-America Billy Brown (seven catches) kept the Rams on the move as quarterbacks Jeff Ziemba and Connor Jessop combined to throw for about 350 yards.
If not for the four turnovers it suffered the Rams could have scored more because they had nearly 500 yards of total offense.
And points were not there when one drive was halted inside the Bobcat three, another fourth-down pass was caught and Feiss bounced out of bounds at the two and freshman Brandon Hlavach fumbled into the Bobcat end zone from the one resulting in a touchback.
Those were three missed touchdowns many Shepherd teams of the past would have tacked onto the scoreboard.
Nothing seen on Saturday lifted the veil of uncertainty concerning finding more than Hlavach at running back . . . or replacing kicker Ryan Earls from the 2015 team . . . or seeing a pass rush . . . or finding adequate cover cornerbacks who won’t let receivers get behind them.
Several expected contributors did not play, giving hope that their return would bring more playmakers to the field.
It was the season opener. And more than a few football coaches/administrators have long said, “A football team improves more from its first to second game than at any time during the season.”
There was room for improvement . . . and the Rams had only a few days to show it because they had to play at Charleston on Thursday, Sept. 8, in a game televised by the conference.
Much-touted Charleston was routed, 44-17, by Notre Dame in its opener in Ohio last Saturday. So maybe the Golden Eagles are in need of improvement themselves.