Last season, Shepherd led the entire NCAA Division II ranks in total defense. It was the Rams’ ability to stop the run that gave them such a high national standing.
Last season, Shepherd drowned Shippensburg with 53 points, including an interception-return touchdown provided by Elijah Davis. But the Red Raiders, in quarterback Zach Zulli’s first-ever start, had four touchdown passes themselves.
The Rams had a decided advantage in overall team speed . . . and their quickness could not be overcome by the Red Raiders.
Zulli is here again in 2012. And so is Shepherd’s corps of linebackers that were so instrumental in getting the Rams their defensive national ranking.
Shippensburg could not sustain a rushing attack in losing by 26 points. It became almost wholly dependent on its pass offense. And while its young quarterback threw four touchdown passes — including one off a flea flicker play — Shippensburg was shredded for 601 offensive yards by the Rams.
To run successfully against Shepherd this Saturday at Seth Grove Stadium, the Red Raiders will have to do it against linemen Howard Jones, Mike Franklin, and Robert Hayes . . . do it against linebackers Dom Tolson, Dom Dixon, Leons Kabongo, and A. J. Parrish . . . do it against a supporting secondary of Corey Washington, D. J. Scott, and Keon Robinson.
Shippensburg couldn’t do it last year when it all but abandoned the run even though it trailed by only a point at the half.
Being hit for 601 yards is not something a team can be prepared for . . . or easily remove from its memory.
Shepherd also had a first-year quarterback in Bobby Cooper. In his first game, Cooper had three touchdown passes before being replaced by freshman Trae Tinsman.
Many of the same players Shippensburg started on offense are back again. Running backs Mike Frenette and Kevin Herod have to be more of a factor if the Red Raiders don’t want to become a one-dimensional offense again.
Shippensburg’s offensive line is a year older and has the experience of 11 games from last year’s 7-4 season.
Zulli had adequate protection. And he used it to keep the Rams chasing his receivers most of the cloud-covered afternoon.
Jacob Baskerville and Trevor Harman are receivers who caught passes against Shepherd.
Most of the missing pieces found in the Shepherd camp are gone from its effective offensive line. Three of the five starters in the line’s interior were 2011 seniors Josh Spring, Carl McIntyre, and Steven Jackson. Those three were reliable . . . effective . . . and resilient enough to stay on the field.
Jordan Dixon was also a steady force, while both Sean Hull and Hussam Ouri were both afforded starts.
Should Shepherd falter, it will be because its offensive line is not the equal of 2011.
Quarterback Cooper had 16 TD passes and completed 172-of-264 passes while suffering 10 interceptions. Kenny Williams shared time at running back with Tommy Addison while netting 842 rushing yards. Michael Hayes had 289 rushing yards while playing sparingly.
Returning receivers Larry Lowe and John Frick (tight end) had 16 catches and Justin Ford had 15 receptions last season.
Shepherd’s Eric Dobratz made 14-of-17 field goal tries and was true on 57-of-62 extra point attempts, including two misses against the Red Raiders. Dobratz was a senior last year. Does Shepherd have an adequate replacement?
When it comes to returning kickoffs and punts, Shepherd should have the advantage. But neither team has shown a quality punter in the recent past. Shepherd’s ability to block punts, field goal tries, and extra point attempts could be a prime factor again this season.
For a season opener, this could be a high quality game with the overall experience of both teams meaning mistakes and turnovers had best be kept for another Saturday.
Shepherd had won the last six times the teams have played. Shippensburg won its last four games of the 2011 season to reach a 7-4 ending to the first season of head coach Mark “Mac” Maciejewski.
The Rams were 9-2 overall, but tied for second in the WVIAC. Coach Monte Cater will be in his 26th season and enters it with a 182-84-2 overall record with the Rams.
After being disappointed when the Division II powers failed to select it for last year’s playoffs, Shepherd knows it must be the WVIAC champion to claim a berth in the national playoffs this season.
Losing to Maciejewski’s pass-defined offense is not the way back to the playoffs.
Shepherd was simply too fast, too quick, too mobile, and too athletic for Shippensburg in 2011. A year later, many of the same Shepherd athletes are back to run away from the Red Raiders if they can.