Now halfway through its conference schedule, Shepherd must next travel nearly five hours to the crest-of-the-hill stadium of league rival West Liberty. The field is perched on flat ground that is so limited that bleachers can be placed on only one sideline … and right behind the Shepherd bench is a chainlink fence that sits flat against a precarious dropoff down a steep bank.
That dropoff isn’t the only thing precarious about the long trip to play West Liberty. The Hilltoppers also have enough talent to beat the now-surging Rams.
Freshman quarterback Dylan Legarde had 302 passing yards and five touchdown throws last week against the little resistance shown him by losing West Virginia State.
What makes West Liberty particularly dangerous right now is because Shepherd has tamed Concord and West Virginia Wesleyan in its last two games. Those are the two teams that dealt Shepherd its only losses in a 2011 season that ended with a 9-2 record.
And now comes a long road trip and a possible emotional letdown and listless Saturday after topping the two teams that had wins over the Rams just last season.
West Liberty shows close conference losses to Fairmont (25-20) and Glenville (17-14) as well as a 33-16 win over West Virginia Wesleyan. Its conference record is 2-2 and it trails Shepherd’s 4-0 league standing.
In its two non-conference games, the Hilltoppers lost at home to Catawba (NC), 24-3, and won on the road at Virginia State, 14-13.
The Hilltoppers have allowed only 83 yards rushing yards per game, but they have gained only 73 yards rushing yards a game themselves.
Shepherd comes in riding on the back of a defense-caused five-game winning streak. Since losing its opener to unbeaten Shippensburg (6-0), the Rams have beaten American International, Seton Hill, Charleston, Concord, and West Virginia Wesleyan on consecutive Saturdays.
The Shepherd defense has yielded only a combined four touchdowns in those five straight wins.
And the Rams have taken over sole possession of first place in its WVIAC with a 4-0 record.
Since only the WVIAC champion will receive a bid to the NCAA Division II playoffs, Shepherd has no remaining Saturday where it can show less than a game-owning defense.
If it does, the Ram offense is unlikely to save the afternoon. Its past history of runners with 1,500 yards and even 2,000 yards helped the Rams to unbeaten seasons and the NCAA playoffs. But finding even a 200-yard game from all its backs combined on any given Saturday has been difficult this season.
And Shepherd doesn’t have the receivers to make a routine catch and then sprint away to a “home run” touchdown.
With the quality of its defense mostly causing more turnovers than they give away, the Rams usually win. But if a day comes along where the Shepherd defense doesn’t master its opponent then the problems may be too difficult to solve.
Keon Robinson, DJ Scott, Robert Hayes, Mike Franklin, and A. J. Parrish have been enough so far, but if they are compromised at all then the Shepherd special teams will need to block field goals, punts, and extra points for the Rams to survive.