By Duane Cochran
Times West Virginian
All season long the two teams that have hurt Fairmont State and West Liberty the most have been Fairmont State and West Liberty.
Thus, heading into Saturday's Mountain East Conference showdown between the two schools on homecoming for the Falcons at Duvall-Rosier Field it was very likely that the team which made the fewest amount of miscues would emerge victorious.
That team wasn't Fairmont State.
The Falcons turned the football over three times, were penalized 13 times for a season-high 136 yards and went through an offensive drought of 18 minutes to start the second half which resulted in a mere two yards of offense.
As a result West Liberty, which played turnover-free football Saturday for only the second time this season, broke a 14-14 halftime tie with a pair of second-half field goals and a touchdown and then held off a furious late Fairmont rally to post a 27-21 victory.
The win halted a two-game losing streak for West Liberty and improved the Hilltoppers to 3-3 overall and to 3-1 in the MEC. Fairmont State, on the other hand, fell to 2-4 overall (1-4 MEC) with its second consecutive loss.
“We shot ourselves in the foot again,” said a disappointed first-year FSU coach Jason Woodman. “We came in tied at halftime and then come out in the second half, get the ball and do absolutely nothing with it for like 18 minutes. About the only thing we did do during that span was throw the ball to the other team and get penalties.
“Our defense again played tremendous. I can't say enough about them and I can't say enough about the effort we're getting on defense. If I knew the answer offensively I would've done it already, but we couldn't pass the ball there in the third quarter and when we tried to run it we couldn't block anybody.”
West Liberty's staunch defense held FSU to a season-low 33 yards on the ground despite the return of Daniel Monroe from a knee injury, who was limited to just 39 yards on 22 carries in his first action of the season. The Hilltoppers held Fairmont's other three ball carriers to a combined negative-six yards and sacked Falcon quarterback Cooper Hibbs five times.
Still, trailing 27-14 with just 7:21 remaining, the Falcons never quit. Instead they responded offensively with a seven-play, 75-yard touchdown march in just 1:34 that was capped by Fabian Guerra's 16-yard TD catch from backup quarterback Tyler Pate. Guerra, a true freshman, finished with a career-high nine catches in the loss for 114 yards and a TD.
Fairmont got the football two more times in the game and on both occasions reached West Liberty territory only to see drives stall thanks to penalties and sacks.
“We really killed ourselves today with penalties and dumb mistakes,” said Hibbs, FSU's true freshman quarterback who completed 21-of-39 passes for a career-high 257 yards and two touchdowns, but was picked off a season-high three times. “I'm making a lot of mistakes myself. I'm making some wrong reads and looking to the wrong side and those are unacceptable mistakes on my part. Physical mistakes are going to happen, but there's no excuse for mental mistakes especially in the sixth week of the season.
“We did come back there late, but it just wasn't enough. The offensive line did a good job of protecting me late and our receivers made some good catches, but we just couldn't get it done.”
Hibbs was solid in the opening half completing 12-of-16 passes for 162 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but he missed on his first seven passes of the second half and suffered a pair of picks during that span, which helped West Liberty turn the field position and put a pair of field goals on the board.
“This was probably the best we've played all season offensively,” said West Liberty coach Roger Waialae. “Now they held us under 300 yards, but instead of making costly mistakes we took advantage of some of their mistakes, were opportunistic and scored off of them and that's the bottom line to win games.
“Our adjustment at halftime was to bring pressure against their young quarterback and I thought it worked well for us for like the first 18 minutes of the second half. I think we had him rattled a little bit and he threw some picks, but he had a great first half against us. He was like 12-of-16 and we weren't going to let him sit back there in the second half and pick us apart. Now eventually we got a little passive there on defense and they came back on us, but we held them off.”
Fairmont's defense held West Liberty to its second-lowest yardage total of the season – 233 total yards. The Hilltoppers had 69 yards on the ground and quarterback Dylan Lagarde completed 12-of-23 passes for 164 yards and one score through the air. The Falcons, however, failed for the first time all year to force a turnover.
“The bottom line today is West Liberty capitalized on our miscues,” said FSU senior linebacker Ryan Watts, who finished with five tackles, including two for losses. “Offensively we turned the ball over and defensively we had a couple of missed assignments and they hurt us with a few big plays.
“But you know we played hard until the end on both offense and defense. Offensively we made a late rally and defensively we came up with some big stops to give the ball back to the offense. In the end, though, it just didn't happen for us today.”
FSU will attempt to re-group during an off week and then return to action Saturday, Oct. 26 when it visits Urbana University for a noon game.
West Liberty, on the other hand, will entertain Urbana next Saturday at home at 1 p.m.