Pleasant weather is gone, playoff partners are more talented
Gone are the 60-degree days that have the smell of underlying pleasantries and competitive football games.
It’s December cold. The air can be snappish and this Saturday in small-town western Pennsylvania so might the home team — California — facing Shepherd in an NCAA Division II playoff football game.
Shepherd is 12-0. California is 12-0, having beaten Kutztown, 53-7, in its conference championship game.
Shepherd has its legitimate ring of stars/playmakers. The Vulcans have an established crew of home-grown players they rely on almost exclusively.
In the last four seasons, Shepherd has registered a staggering 38-2 regular season record. In three of those seasons, the Rams have earned a berth in the NCAA playoffs, charging through three wins all the way to Kansas City and the national championship game just last season.
It’s playmakers that make the difference, especially now that any one play can propel a team on to the next round or confine it to campus to watch on television another team that beat it.
Playmakers line up behind Billy Brown at Shepherd. He’s able to catch throws in his direction that at times appear to be off-target. At 6-foot-4, 236, Brown is a physical force against anything as foolish as one-on-one coverage.
As Shepherd’s season moves along and opponents see the damage Brown has done to Mountain East teams, they strain to find ways to at least curtail his influence on any game.
Linebackers James Gupton and Octavius Thomas are the most noteworthy playmakers allied with Shepherd’s defense.
Gupton is the quickest and most active defender. His reads tell any close observer he knows what is happening. A sure tackler, Gupton has to get nine or 10 tackles in any game from now on for Shepherd to be effective.
Thomas is a four-year starter and his sturdy body is usually found on the bottom of a pile where the opponent has run between the tackles.
C.J. Davis is both a receiving threat and a kick return demon who has to have several open field chances per game to realize his full worth.
Myles Humphrey is Shepherd’s most active pass rusher. He has been disruptive for weeks now, swatting forced fumbles to the ground, recovering them and also getting more and more sacks as the season surges on.
Ruan Venter has been a valuable punter this season. His boots inside the 20 — and often inside the eight — have been used to get the Rams the field position needed to win close games.
Now that William Smith has been injured and missed too much time, Shepherd’s most influential linemen have been reduced to only two — Jake Kingston and Brandon Wooten. Neither is a tackle, so almost all the pressure coming against Ram quarterback Jeff Ziemba has flowed in from the outside.
Kingston and Wooten have to be almost letter perfect from this day on.
Shepherd’s long snapper is senior Nick Barmoy, and he has been unerring with his snaps on punts, field goal attempts and extra point tries.
That’s a corps of playmakers, not just guys that ride along on the wave of winning success. But those who make the defining plays that in the long run of a game’s 145 plays are the reasons a game can be won.
Brown can be stopped. But not by an opponent.
Davis can mean little in a game, but not if used as a kick returner/punt returner and three-times-a-half receiver.
Gupton and Thomas can be negated, but not if they aren’t too busy covering for other’s too-numerous mistakes.
California is not Northwest Missouri State… but it is formidable enough. Other players besides those named here have to become a positive influence somewhere in Saturday’s game in rural Pennsylvania for the Shepherd season to continue farther on into December.