By Duane Cochran
Times West Virginian
In the span of a mere 92 seconds, Fairmont State University’s hopes for a .500 season in football were squashed here Saturday afternoon at Ram Stadium by West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference champion Shepherd University.
The underdog Falcons went toe-to-toe with the powerful Rams for much of the first half and took a 16-14 lead over the hosts on a six-yard Bobby Vega to Chris St. Hilaire touchdown pass with 1:50 left in the opening 30 minutes.
However, over the course of the next 1:32 Shepherd scored a pair of touchdowns to take a 28-16 lead at the half en route to a convincing 49-23 victory.
The win improved Shepherd to 8-2 overall and to 7-1 in the league. It also gave veteran Shepherd coach Monte Cater his record 14th WVIAC title. The Rams are expected to earn a berth in the NCAA Division II Playoffs, which begin next weekend.
“I’m really proud of our kids today for the way they responded,” said Cater. “Gosh, Fairmont was really playing well there early on and beat us on a couple of deep balls. We had them 14-10 for a while and then they took a 16-14 lead right before the half, but we got the two quick scores and that really turned the tide. Everything changed right there.
“We looked explosive and explosive is not necessarily a great word for us because typically we don’t throw the ball like we did today. Obviously this was the best day we’ve ever had throwing the ball. We got some good matchups and had some kids take advantage of them and make big plays for us.”
Ram quarterback Bobby Cooper shredded Fairmont’s secondary for a school-record 430 yards passing and three touchdowns. He completed 27 of his 38 pass attempts and shattered the old Shepherd record for single-game passing yards, which was set in 1986, by 84 yards.
Eight different receivers caught passes for the Rams led by Larry Lowe, who had seven catches for 117 yards and true freshman Billy Brown, who caught seven balls for 113 yards and one TD.
The Rams, who amassed 608 total yards against the Falcons, also rushed for 178 yards and four touchdowns in the victory, while holding Fairmont State to a season-low negative 11 yards rushing for the game. The 608 yards is the most total yardage allowed in a game this season by Fairmont’s defense.
“We really didn’t do anything well today,” said FSU coach Mike Lopez, who watched his team finish the season 4-6 overall, 4-4 and tied for fifth place in the WVIAC. “They exploited us in the secondary. They ran some switch verticals on us and got us. We had some busted coverages. That’s an area we have to address in the offseason.
“Their front four we knew was very good. They lead the league in rushing yards allowed and I wasn’t sure today if we were facing the New York Giants or Shepherd. They’re just outstanding up front and it showed today.”
With virtually no hope of running the ball with any success against the stingy Rams’ front wall, Fairmont went to the air early and often and found some success. Vega completed 20-of-38 passes for 264 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but he was intercepted three times, including once right before the half which led to Shepherd’s fourth touchdown and twice in the second half — one of which led to another Ram score.
Vega was also sacked three times in the loss and fumbled on one of those sacks, which led to another Ram touchdown which made it 42-16 late in the third quarter.
“Coming into this game coach had told us there was going to be no room for error on our part,” said FSU senior safety Daniel Strosnider. “He said any mistake we’d make offensively or defensively they were going to capitalize on it and in my opinion that’s exactly what they did.
“Anytime we turned the ball over, fell short on something or had a blown coverage they made us pay for it. They’re a very good football team and that’s what good teams do — they make you pay for your mistakes. Hats off to them. They’re heading to the playoffs and they deserve to be there representing our league.”
One bright spot for Fairmont State in the loss was the play of junior wide receiver C.J. Goodwin, who had a career-high seven catches for a career-high 141 yards. St. Hilaire finished with five receptions for 72 yards and one TD.
Falcon senior tight end Sean Marion capped his career by catching the first touchdown of his career for Fairmont’s final score — an 11-yarder from backup quarterback Tyler Pate.
“Obviously I don’t like the final result today, but at least that moment for me felt pretty awesome,” said Marion. “I told Pate hold that ball an extra second. It was supposed to be a seven-yard route but I told him I wasn’t turning until I got to the end zone. He threw me a great ball. He put it right in my lap. All I had to do was grab it.”
The win was the 10th in 11 games for Shepherd over Fairmont State. The losing season is the fourth for Lopez in his six years as the head coach of the Falcons. It also is the team’s eighth losing season in the last 11 years.