By Mike DeFabo
Times West Virginian
Fairmont State University football coach Jason Woodman isn’t one to make excuses or beat around the bush.
He’ll admit that the defense has been the strength of the team, producing key turnovers and coming up with timely stops, while a lackluster offense led by freshman quarterback Cooper Hibbs has struggled to find its footing.
“He’s not where he wants to be,” Woodman said of Hibbs. “But we’re not where we want to be as a team yet, either.”
The same can be said for the Falcon’s opponent this week.
West Liberty (2-3, 2-1 Mountain East Conference) is among the top three defenses in the conference, limiting opposing offenses to an average of just 14 points per game. The Hilltoppers’ offense, meanwhile, has experienced the same struggles that the Falcons have. They are one of the bottom-feeders of the league, putting up just 10.2 points per game.
Unsatisfied with the lack of offensive production, West Liberty elected to start senior quarterback Tyler Tucci last week against Division I-FCS Duquesne University. But after turnovers and other offensive mishaps, the Hilltoppers went back to sophomore quarterback Dylan Lagarde.
It’s safe to say that the Hilltoppers are struggling offensively.
Is it also safe to say that the two team’s similar identities will result in a defensive struggle today at 2 p.m. when the Falcons (2-3, 1-3 MEC) host the Hilltoppers at Duvall-Rosier Field?
“I hope not,” Woodman said. “I hope we're scoring like crazy.”
Hoping and believe are two different things, though. And when Woodman took a step back, he admitted a low-scoring battle may be in the cards Saturday afternoon.
“It's definitely going to be two good defenses out there and two offenses that are struggling,” he said. “It very well could turn into a defensive struggle.”
Earlier this season, Woodman said he liked his defense’s chances against anybody. And for good reason.
The unit is ranked 44th overall and 20th against the pass, limiting opponents to just over 175 yards per game through the air. Solid number. But what’s more impressive tham the scoring prevention is the scoring production.
The Falcons have forced the fifth-most turnovers nationally (15). Four of the turnovers have been returned for touchdowns, and several more have provided good field position for offensive scores.
“Since the offense is struggling, we’re trying to put the team on our back,” said defensive back Dominik Mensah, who returned an interception 22 yards for a touchdown in a win over West Virginia State. “If they can't score, we’ve got to try to score at least one or two a game so therefore we can help them out.”
Even though the Falcons have consistently forced turnovers, the team is just +0.2 in turnover differential due to its own inability to hang on to the football. In last week’s 34-17 loss at Concord, three second-half turnovers spoiled the Falcons’ 14-10 lead at the half.
The offense knows that protecting the football will be essential against the Hilltoppers’ defense that is ranked 11th in Division II.
“If you go back and look at our losses, that’s what killed us,” Woodman said.
Hibbs said the offense has emphasized protecting the football in practice and hopes it pays off today.
“We’ve really focused on (limiting turnovers) in practice,” Hibbs said. “If we mess up, we’ve got to realize that one play can cost us the game.”
Woodman and the Falcons are hoping that the “one play” turns in their favor today.
“Whichever offense can put together enough to score a touchdown or two, then that's who's probably going to end up winning the game,” he said. “But on the flipside, if you turn the ball over and give it to the other team and give them more chances to make those plays, it could be a problem.”
Email Mike DeFabo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @MikeDeFaboTWV.