By Duane Cochran
Times West Virginian
The MO of Shepherd University’s football team hasn’t changed in 27 years under veteran coach Monte Cater.
The nationally ranked Rams are masters of taking advantage of opponents’ mistakes and making them pay for them.
Saturday afternoon at Duvall-Rosier Field, 17th-ranked Shepherd turned three Fairmont State turnovers into 20 unanswered points en route to a 27-7 victory over the Falcons in the first-ever Mountain East Conference football game for both schools.
“You and I both know the 27-7 score really wasn’t indicative of the game itself,” said Cater, whose Rams improved to 2-0 overall and to 1-0 in the MEC. “They made some mistakes, and we were able to take advantage of those and capitalize on them. Our defense, I think, played well. They gave up some yardage, but didn’t give up a score.
“Offensively, we’re going to look at it and say we didn’t play very well, but I think Fairmont State’s defense did play well. They took some chances, put a lot of people up on the line of scrimmage and played man-to-man and we couldn’t make them pay. It was an ugly win for us, but again give Fairmont credit for making it that way.”
First-year FSU head coach Jason Woodman was pleased with his team’s effort Saturday, but disappointed with the miscues which aided the Rams in the win.
“That’s Monte’s game,” said Woodman. “They put you in situations you don’t want to be in, and if you’re not patient and don’t play the waiting game, they’ll get you every time. Unfortunately for us, they were there and our turnovers turned into points for them, and that’s what mainly led to the score being what it was today.”
Ironically it was Shepherd that made the first big miscue of the day, and it was Fairmont’s defense which took advantage of it.
Midway through the second quarter in a scoreless game, FSU freshman cornerback Jacob Jean-Charles picked off a Trae Tinsman pass and returned it 35 yards to the Shepherd three-yard line where he was hit from behind and fumbled the ball into the end zone. Luckily for the Falcons, true freshman defensive end T.C. Chestnut was following the play and alertly fell on the football in the end zone for a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead with 9:32 left in the half.
“Our defense was set up and playing cover two and I saw the receiver jump inside, so I jumped in front of him, saw the quarterback throw it and picked it off,” said Jean-Charles. “I felt like I could get to the corner of the end zone for a touchdown and then I got hit from behind and fumbled it. I thought, ‘Oh man, I’m going to give the ball back to Shepherd,’ but luckily my teammates were there for the recovery.”
Chestnut says he was trailing the play and looking to make a block when he saw the football come free and land in the end zone. He says he was in the right place at the right time.
“Coach always stresses to us to get to the ball, and when Jacob made that interception I was trying to get up in there and block, and when he fumbled I picked it up and had a touchdown,” said Chesnut. “I wasn’t sure they were going to give it to me or not. I thought they might spot it at the one, but they gave it to me. It felt good for us to get the 7-0 lead, but I knew we still had a lot of game left to be played.”
Shepherd didn’t waste much time knotting the score at seven. Two possessions later, the Rams tied the contest when Jabre Lolley scampered in from three yards out to cap an 11-play, 51-yard scoring march with just 2:41 left in the half.
On Fairmont’s ensuing possession, the Falcons made their first costly mistake of the game, and Shepherd turned it into six points and a 13-7 halftime lead. After getting a first down at its own 32, Fairmont was penalized for a personal foul which took the football back to the 17. On the next play, senior quarterback C.J. Hopson, who was alternating with true freshman signal caller Cooper Hibbs, attempted to scramble out of the pocket and fumbled the ball, which Shepherd’s Mike Franklin fell on at the FSU 12 with 1:03 left in the half.
Three plays later Tinsman found tight end Anthony Weisenmiller wide open in the back of the end zone on a one-yard TD pass to give Shepherd the lead for good.
“I’ll take the blame for that,” said Woodman. “I was trying to get the field position changed and maybe get a field goal before the half. If I had it to do over, I might have done things differently.”
Late in the third quarter Rams’ outside linebacker Levi Barber, who enjoyed a productive day in the victory, picked off a Hibbs’ pass to put Shepherd in business at the FSU 32.
Eight plays later, Allen Cross rumbled in from one yard out to give the Rams a 20-7 on the first play of the final quarter. Shepherd converted on a big fourth-and-eight play to keep the drive alive and take the two-touchdown lead.
FSU had two golden opportunities in the game's final 10 minutes to cut into Shepherd's lead but couldn't take advantage of them. First, the Falcons had a first down at the Rams’ 11 and were turned away on downs with 9:04 left to play. Later, after getting a first-and-goal at the four on its next drive, Hibbs fumbled and Barber scooped up the loose football and outraced everyone 89 yards to the end zone for Shepherd's final TD with just 1:01 left to play.
“We had a couple of opportunities there late and weren't able to capitalize on them,” said Woodman. “That's frustrating, but they're very, very good on defense with the things they do. Their front four is the best front four I've seen in a long, long time. You get down in the red zone against them and things get tight and it's easy to make a mistake and we did that today. The turnovers killed us.”
Indeed they did. Fairmont State actually outgained the Rams 251-171 and held a 14-11 advantage in first downs. FSU’s defense also limited Shepherd to a mere 23 passing yards. Both teams suffered three turnovers in the game, but the difference was Shepherd turned all three of Fairmont’s turnovers into touchdowns, while the Falcons were only able to capitalize on one of the Rams’ turnovers.
FSU will attempt to bounce back Thursday evening when it visits rival Glenville State for a 7 p.m. conference game at Morris Stadium. Shepherd, on the other hand, will be back in action Saturday when it hosts Urbana at noon.