Rams end season at 13-1
As the sharp-edged wind swept the last of the 7,017 fans out of comfort-deprived Ram Stadium, a high-quality football game with national ramifications had just ended.
It was a defiant afternoon that tried men’s souls with its 34-degree temperature and 18 mph winds that kept hammering those in attendance for nearly three-and-a-half hours.
Three-time national champion North Alabama had just ended then-unbeaten Shepherd’s stellar season one game shy of a second consecutive appearance in Kansas City’s national championship game.
The bundled crowd, many standing and all trying to maintain their truce against the always-invading wind, had hung on nearly every play of the Lions’ 23-13 win that cast at least a slight pall over the frigid afternoon of some sun, some clouds and all overcoats, gloves and frosted noses.
Shepherd had fallen short for the first time in 14 games. North Alabama had reached the national championship game for the first time since 1995 and will face defending champion Northwest Missouri State this weekend.
It was something of a duel of opposing quarterbacks, both finalists for NCAA Division II’s version of the Heisman Trophy — the Harlon Hill Award.
Jacob Tucker was North Alabama’s candidate. And he did just enough to carry the day for the Lions.
Jeff Ziemba was Shepherd’s quarterback. And he had his least-appealing statistical day of the 14-game season.
Tucker ran and passed. He kept Shepherd off-balance enough to get 23 points, an amount that ordinarily wouldn’t capsize the Rams.
Ziemba could complete only 11 of his 28 throws and suffered a late-game interception that melted Shepherd’s final chances.
Even though he averaged only 3.9 yards per run, Tucker reeled off meaningful first-down producing runs that kept the few Lion scoring moves in motion. And Tucker ran 29 times for 113 yards. He threw 27 times and completed 12 of his heaves for 178 yards and one score.
Both sides showed quality defenses.
Shepherd’s keep-the-Rams-in-the game legion forced and recovered two fumbles and grounded Tucker six times with sacks.
But Shepherd could manage only 245 yards of total offense, its lowest such production of the season.
After the Rams had literally marched 79 yards in taking a 7-0 lead with their first possession with 14 plays, there would be no more Shepherd touchdowns on the day.
It would be up to Shepherd defenders like Tre Sullivan (12 tackles), Octavius Thomas (eight stops and a forced fumble), James Gupton (seven tackles), Myles Humphrey (six stops, 1.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for losses), Jared Austin (five tackles and a sack), Tre Anderson (five tackles, two pass breakups), DeJuan Neal, Bruno Anyangwe and Shaq Melvin to keep Tucker and receiver Dre Hall (seven catches for a score and 112 yards) from doing more damage to Shepherd’s chances.
Four ineligible receiver downfield penalties stunted Shepherd and stunned those shivering in attendance. Three of those calls negated pass completions of nine, 18 and 61 yards — the last a would-be reception by C.J. Davis that carried deep into Lion territory when the Rams were trailing only, 20-13, with about six minutes to play.
As the sun dipped even lower in the sky and the cold deepened its stranglehold on all involved, Shepherd had done enough to win most games . . . but couldn’t fracture North Alabama’s defense with more than a season-low 13 points.