Dramatic second half carries Shepherd past California
Mistakes flew like blue and gold confetti through the cold, early December afternoon in playoff-charged western Pennsylvania. There was once a 17-0 deficit. And then a 30-21 deficit in the third quarter.
But resilient and then robust Shepherd made its way back against homestanding California in the quarterfinal round of the NCAA Division II national playoffs.
The unbeaten Rams called on a reservoir of determination/competitiveness to score the last three touchdowns against the then-undefeated Vulcans . . . and left Adamson Stadium with a still-pulsating 41-30 win that meant a second straight visit to the national semifinals and a 13-0 overall record for Shepherd.
An intercepted pass and punt-return score by the Vulcans were two of the arrows they used to take a quick-strike, 17-0, lead in the early going.
Even when the Rams managed first-half touchdowns from Brandon Hlavach, Bruno Anyangwe and Billy Brown, the Vulcans went nearly the length of the field with two lethal pass completions to go back ahead, 24-21, at the half.
Shepherd had gotten out from under the tonnage of its early-game troubles . . . but still had yeomen’s work in front of it.
California took its first possession of the second half some 65 yards in 12 plays to build a 30-21 lead.
The Vulcans would never score again against the now-flooding Shepherd defense.
After Hlavach ran 34 yards in nearly reaching the California end zone, Brown grabbed a three-yard scoring throw from Ziemba to make the Shepherd need only three points as the Vulcans still had a 30-27 advantage nearing the close of the third period.
The tense and pressurized fourth quarter was all Shepherd.
The Rams went on a measured 80-yard drive in eight plays that was closed when C.J. Davis went to his knees to take a five-yard pass from Ziemba for a go-ahead score.
There had been pass completions of 22 and 51 yards to Brown that led to the open mouth of the California end zone.
Leading, 34-30, the Rams were not through the thicket of California thorns.
Back down field came the Vulcans. With quarterback Michael Keir either finding targets or scrambling away to first down runs, California reached the Shepherd 17.
But the four-point deficit mightily concerned the home side. A field goal would still mean a one-point Shepherd lead.
At the Shepherd 17, Keir misfired . . . misfired a second time to a well-covered receiver. . . and then was repulsed again by the Shepherd coverage on a third straight incompletion.
Instead of attempting a field goal, California had Keir throw again on fourth down. His throw into the end zone went incomplete and the Rams took over on downs at their own 17.
Fifteen plays and 83 yards later, Shepherd had almost stripped the clock of its waning minutes and seconds and had a prosperous 41-30 lead when new quarterback Connor Jessop bruised his way across from the one on fourth down.
Ziemba had run for 15 yards on a third and four situation. Hlavach had gained 17 ground yards to the Vulcan 17.
On third-and-goal from the eight, Ziemba had gotten to the one where he was grounded . . . and injured.
Ziemba left and Jessop entered for his first play. He scored on a keeper.
When the Vulcans tried to keep their season afloat, Shepherd got sacks on Keir from Marshall Mundin and Myles Humphrey, making a last contribution after having two tackles for lost yardage, two sacks and a fumble recovery.
Anyangwe had a sack in addition to his fumble-return touchdown.
Shepherd’s surging defense, that held the Vulcans to just 58 rushing yards, was buoyed by the 15 tackles from Octavius Thomas and eight from fellow linebacker James Gupton. Chris Jones had a productive game with eight stops and Tre Sullivan, who was ejected on a late targeting penalty, had six stops.
Double-and even triple-teamed at times by defenders, Brown still had nine receptions for 172 yards and two scores. Hlavach had 24 carries for 127 yards as the Rams had 201 yards rushing and 200 yards passing.
“R” stood for “Rams,” “resilient” and “resurgent” on Dec. 3 in California, Pennsylvania . . . and Shepherd got ready for once-beaten North Alabama in the national semifinals at icy Ram Stadium, home of the raucous home crowd wrapped in their warmest winter garb . . . most of it blue and gold in color.