FAIRMONT — In each of the past four seasons, Fairmont State versus Charleston has been a marquee Mountain East Conference matchup full of ample intrigue and suspense.
Every one of the teams’ last four meetings has ended as a one-score game, with the teams splitting the quartet of games 2-2 over that span and the Golden Eagles holding a miniscule combined plus-2 scoring differential.
And in 2019, the plot thickens even more, with Fairmont State and Charleston set to kick off the Division II season and the MEC slate in today’s 7 p.m. game at UC Stadium in the state capitol.
“Week 1 is going to be interesting. It’s always hard to tell what’s going to happen,” said FSU coach Jason Woodman, who is beginning his seventh season as head coach with a Falcons squad ranked No. 25 in the D-II preseason poll. “First game, you get some of these new guys under the lights and you’re not really sure how they’re going to respond. And honestly, there are times you have returners go under the lights and you’re like, ‘You haven’t done that in four years, so why are you doing it now?’”
Those jitters, and potential mistakes are universal across the roster heading into Week 1, but the narrative surrounding the Falcons all summer has been the past merits and future potential of a team loaded with returning starters.
The Falcons bring back 17 of 22 starters, including 10 of 11 on the offense, from last season’s 9-2 squad that just missed out on a D-II playoff berth. “We know we had a lot of (returning) players here, but our best 11 are going to be out there,” said Woodman on Tuesday’s conference call. “We were really focused on creating competition throughout camp, and some guys surprised us, stepped up and made plays, and did some things we weren’t expecting and some of the guys fell off.”
Nonetheless, with fifth-year redshirt senior quarterback Takwan Crews-Naylor back after going 155-of-250 for 2,370 yards and 23 TDs with 6 INTs in 2018, along with 1,000-yard rusher Khalik Hamlin, all five starting offensive linemen, and a modicum of skill position players, the Falcons have the chops to be a multi-dimensional offensive headache for defenses this season.
“The quarterback makes great decisions, especially pre-snap, and in the running game, with those linemen coming back and a kid like Khalik Hamlin, they make you defend the whole formation,” said Charleston coach Pat Kirkland on Tuesday’s conference call. “They’ve got some great leadership on the offensive side of the ball, whereas we have some young kids on the defensive side of the ball. That’s something you have to take into account for Week 1.”
Fairmont State’s offense of 2019 versus Charleston’s defense of last season would’ve been the ultimate heavyweight bout with the Golden Eagles boasting the MEC’s top-ranked and the nation’s 8th-ranked defense in 2018, but the Golden Eagles have since been plundered by graduation losses that saw eight of 11 starters on that side walk out the door.
“We’ve got to do a really good job of being fundamentally sound, not give up the big plays, and just make sure that we make them earn everything,” said Kirkland, whose defense will be led by 6-foot-4, 300-pound junior lineman Kenny Randall who posted 13.5 tackles for loss last season at defensive tackle. “We got some young guys and I think we’re athletic up front, but when they can run the ball as well as they can, we’re gonna have to be physical. When you have an offensive line like they do and a running game like that, it’s going to be a big key to make sure we can stop the run.”
The Falcons, which led the MEC in points per game last season at 39.4, return pretty much all of the artillery from a rushing attack that ranked second in the conference in 2018 at 222.9 yards a game. Hamlin, who rushed for 1,167 yards and 10 TDs last season, is the headliner, but the team’s line of All-American and All-MEC guards Chandler Zavala and Lonnell McGuire, respectively, all-conference tackles Zach Cox and Garrett Kapstein-O’Brien and returning center Tyreke McKeithan can make plenty of ball carriers look good.
And the Falcons have capable reserves in Hamlin with Rakeem Darden, Tyree Randolph and Timothy Smith. The Falcons also bring back their top two wideouts in Shawn Harris (715 yards, 5 TDs) and Javon Hayes (688 yards, 8 TDs) with reinforcements in the form of 2018 medical redshirts Andre Hall and Jeff Iweh.
“Everybody has a really good game plan until the bullets start flying and things start happening, and that’s always the issue in Week 1,” Woodman said. “We didn’t put a ton of stock into (Charleston) personnel-wise, we were more worried about ourselves. We’re really focusing on what we can do and what we can control.”
Defensively, Fairmont State returns seven starters from last season, where the Falcons finished in fourth in the MEC in total defense (324.3 YPG) and second in the conference in scoring defense (18.5 PPG).
The biggest alteration to the team’s defense is in the coaching personnel, where Tom Rebholz has come from Findlay as the Falcons’ defensive coordinator.
“He’s very detailed and he’s very intense,” Woodman said of Rebholz. “Our players have bought into it and are doing a great job with everything that we’re doing. The kids are excited to play for him. It’s been a pretty smooth transition.”
Michael Porter, an all-conference cornerback, who Kirkland dubbed as one of the best cover men in all of D-II football, leads the Falcons defense after snagging three INTs to go with 24 tackles last season.
Fellow defensive backs Malachi McMillan and Jordan Schaeffer are also among the team’s leading returning tacklers from last season, with the Fairmont State secondary projecting as the most experienced layer of the defense despite the graduation of star safety Stephen Turner.
Charleston’s offense, which ranked fifth in the MEC in 2018 at 361.1 yards per game is led by redshirt senior quarterback Brant Grisel, who threw for 418 yards with 2 TDs and 2 INTs in two games last season, as well as a stout offensive line, Kirkland said, highlighted by returnees Isaiah Anderson and Austin Ringel.
Matchup to watch: Falcons CB Michael Porter vs. UC WR Mike Strachan
Strachan had 48 catches for 1,007 yards and 8 TDs last season, while Porter posted three INTs and 24 tackles as Fairmont State’s top cover man. Both were first team All-MEC selections and are the most feared playmakers on their respective offensive and defensive units.
Porter’s adapting to a new scheme under Rebholz, and Strachan is taking on a new role by moving around all over Charleston’s offensive formations.
“As opposed to last year where we just had him at the X (receiver) on the backside, we’ve been moving him around quite a bit,” Kirkland said.
It’s unclear how often the two will actually matchup, especially in man-to-man coverage, but any time these two align across from one another, turn your attention that way.
NOTES (courtesy of FightingFalcons.com): The Thursday night season opener is the first of six Thursday games for the Falcons during the 2019 season. The Falcons will play four of their first five games of the season on Thursday night.
Fairmont State is 3-3 in season openers under head coach Jason Woodman, including wins in two of the last three seasons. UC owns a 12-7-1 all-time record over Fairmont State in a series dating back to 1928.
The Falcons have won two of the last three meetings with UC, picking up wins in 2016 and 2017. The Falcons and Golden Eagles are meeting in a season opener for the first time since 2004 – a 38-24 Fairmont State victory in Charleston.
The Falcons are opening the 2019 season on a five-game winning streak, scoring at least 38 points in each of their last five games during the 2018 season. The Falcons outscored opponents 248-83 in the last five games of 2018.
The Falcons have also won eight-straight on the road coming into tonight’s game (dating back to the 2017 season). Fairmont State’s last road loss came on Oct. 7, 2017 against Notre Dame College (19-14).
Woodman is just 2-4 against the University of Charleston. Charleston held off Fairmont State to pick up a 23-17 road win over the Falcons at Duvall-Rosier Field in 2018.
The Falcons have lost their last three Thursday night season openers dating back to the 2014 season. FSU fell 20-16 to East Stroudsburg in 2017, 59-34 to WV State in 2015, and 42-35 to Notre Dame College in 2014.
The Falcons last win in a Thursday night season opener was in 2013, a 37-29 victory over Seton Hill.