The challenge is clear.
When Fairmont State University (2-4, 1-4 Mountain East Conference) travels to Urbana (5-2, 5-1 MEC) for a noon game today, the Falcons will be trying to contain the Blue Knights’ top 10 passing offense led by quarterback D.J. Mendenhall, a preseason All-American who has thrown for more than 2,300 yards and 24 touchdowns this season.
“He’s the real deal,” first-year Fairmont State coach Jason Woodman said. “He has a really good arm. He can make every throw. And they do some stuff schematically that puts him and their offense in advantages, whether it’s play action or using matchups on certain guys.”
What isn’t so clear is how to deal with this challenge.
The Falcons may count on senior linebacker Garrett Davis, the heart of the defense who ranks 13th in the nation with 46 tackles … Or defensive end Jake Kelly, who is 12th in the country with seven sacks ... Or linebacker Ryan Watts or defensive back Dominik Mensah, two players who lead the team with two interceptions each.
But they won’t.
Though Woodman said, “The one thing I continue to be happy about is the desire and determination that we’re playing with on defense,” he is looking elsewhere.
Instead of putting the pressure on Davis or Kelly or Watts or Mensah or any other player from the defense that is ranked second in the Mountain East Conference against the pass, he’ll instead count on his offense.
“More than what our defense does, I think the key to it is what we can do offensively and what we can do to keep (Mendenhall) off the field,” Woodman said.
That pressure naturally falls on the quarterback Cooper Hibbs. Like the rest of the offense, he’s experienced a bit of an up-and-down season.
Look no further than the Falcons’ last outing against West Liberty in which Hibbs threw for a season-high 257 yards and two touchdowns, but also three interceptions.
“Cooper is just like the rest of the young guys on our team in the sense that he continues to get better each week. It doesn’t always show on game day,” Woodman said. “I think he’s improving, and he’ll get better. He’ll just have to work like the rest of the team.”
It doesn’t help Hibbs much that wide receiver Chris St. Hilaire, who ranks eighth in Fairmont State history with 1,676 receiving yards, has been sidelined with a foot injury since the second quarter of week two.
Freshman Fabian Guerra has begun to step up in his absence, catching nine balls for 114 yards and a touchdown against West Liberty.
But still, Hibbs admits that he and the offense are a work in progress.
“We’re starting to get that chemistry down a little better every single week. But we’ve got to get better,” he said. “I feel that I should be at a different level than I’ve been recently. I feel like I plateaued a little bit.”
Junior running back Daniel Monroe will help take some of the pressure off Hibbs. After missing the first five games with a knee injury, he returned against the Hilltoppers to rush for just 39 yards on 21 carries.
Woodman said that the bye week helped Monroe to continue to get healthier and get closer to the form that helped him rack up more than 1,700 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns in two seasons at Fairmont State.
“For him specifically, the bye week was seven more days to get back into football playing condition,” Woodman said. “He wasn’t quite up to game condition. And at times you could see it. He didn’t really have legs when he was in the game for a longer period of time.”
Despite the challenges that the Falcons face, they said they are looking to make improvements today.
And for Hibbs, maybe even more than that.
“We’re looking to make a statement,” Hibbs said. “Granted we’re 2-4 and we don’t have the best record. But we can still play with the best of them.”
Email Mike DeFabo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @MikeDeFaboTWV.
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