Unbeaten Shepherd, Fairmont clash for more than a conference title
Most of the crimson, orange-hued and bright yellow leaves have fallen. All of the Mountain East Conference title contenders that have challenged Shepherd and Fairmont have fallen.
And it’s just those two unbeaten teams left to contend for not only the league championship but also for an undefeated regular season and a high seeding in the Super Region One national playoffs coming later this month.
Last week, Fairmont edged Notre Dame, 23-19, to move to 9-0-0 and Shepherd did the same, stopping West Liberty on the road to the tune of 38-27 to boost its record to 8-0-0.
With fan-perfect and player-perfect weather cooperating with the enormity of the game, Ram Stadium will be bursting its buttons trying to hold the expected overflow of people coming to see the nationally-ranked teams.
It’s Shepherd’s best season since, well, last year when it carried a 13-0 record into the national championship game in Kansas City in late December. It’s Fairmont’s best season since it won the NAIA national championship in 1967.
The Rams have beaten every opponent by at least 11 points while the Fighting Falcons have had several close escapes, including a one-point win over West Liberty.
Even though Shepherd has developed freshman running back Brandon Hlavach into a mid-season force, the Rams don’t win with their rushing game. Fairmont has defensed the run better than any team in the league and has done well with its own ground game.
The two (or three) quarterbacks have produced passing yardage and touchdowns enough to keep winning. Shepherd has starter Jeff Ziemba and reliable backup Connor Jessop. It was Jessop who threw for 480 yards and five touchdowns in a 70-24 romp over West Virginia State.
Fairmont has Cooper Higgs to guide its offense. Higgs is a long-time starter who has never beaten Shepherd, but has a cast around him in receivers Laurence King and Fabian Guerra and brutish runner, Terrell Charles, an oft-used 5-foot-8, 190-pound worker.
James Gupton and Octavius Thomas give the Rams two all-conference linebackers and safety Tre Sullivan, linebacker D’Angelo Niler and defensive end Myles Humphrey have been the most obvious playmakers in Shepherd’s valid attempt at a second straight unbeaten season.
When Higgs and company haven’t produced exciting offensive numbers, the Fairmont defense has been ready and able to win games with far more takeaways than the Rams have managed.
Ruan Venter has been a consistent help with his punting for the Rams . . . and placekicker Zach Wise has made all of his extra points for weeks. Wise connected on a career-long, 39-yard field goal last week against the Hilltoppers.
The Fighting Falcons have blocked numerous kicks and will be primed to turn Saturday’s game in their direction with another one.
Dakota Conwell of West Liberty nearly erased Shepherd’s undefeated status with his quarterback antics, but the Rams had the checkmate play of receiver Billy Brown (eight catches and two scores), Gupton and Thomas (both with more than 10 tackles), Ziemba (completing a high percentage of his passes) and Hlavach (a game-clinching touchdown run).
Ziemba will be chased and pressured and sacked by the Fairmont defense because the Shepherd offensive line has only Jake Kingston, Brandon Wooten and William Smith with consistent, week in-week out useful performances . . . and Smith has been injured and may not even start.
Fairmont will focus on Shepherd’s offensive tackles and see if sacks can be deciding factors against those players.
The home field advantage is Shepherd’s and the Rams have used the vocal allegiance from every corner of the stadium to unhinge more than one opponent and carry some players to their best playmaking performances.
It’s the last home game (of the regular season) for the Rams.
Emotion will be sizzling through the crowns of the helmets on both sides.
Which team will have the most playmakers? Which team will have the fewest turnovers, senseless 15-yard penalties and be free from the deadening effect of a blocked kick or interception-return for points?
It’s Ram Stadium on a sun-splashed, college-football afternoon.
And only one team can celebrate its success when the report cards of its most-valued playmakers are evaluated.