It’s back on a playoff road that Shepherd has become pleasingly familiar with in recent years.
After taking down another WVIAC championship, the Rams completed the sometimes bumpy season with an 8-2 overall record that was strong enough to earn a sixth-place ranking in the final NCAA Division II Super Region One standings.
Only six teams are called to the national playoffs in Super Region One.
Shepherd’s first-round opponent will be Indiana’s Crimson Hawks, a team that completed a 10-1 season with a 41-10 win over previously unbeaten Shippensburg in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championship game.
Third-seeded Indiana gets to host the first playoff game, which has a 12-noon start at 6,000-seat George Miller Stadium in western Pennsylvania. The field is covered by artificial turf.
Shepherd and Indiana teams of the past have met twice in other playoff seasons. It was in 1998 that the Rams defeated Indiana, 9-6, in a first-round game in frozen Indiana, a city of about 16,000 about a half-hour north of Johnstown and 35-40 miles east of Pittsburgh.
The Rams lost to Slippery Rock the next week in those playoffs.
In 2007, Shepherd went 9-1 in the regular season and had first-round bye in the Regional before stopping Indiana, 41-34, in a high-scoring game.
California (Pa.) bounced the Rams out of those playoffs with a 58-38 win that sent the Vulcans to the national semifinals.
Indiana’s convincing win over Shippensburg was its seventh straight since losing to California by a 26-24 score on Sept. 22. The Vulcans had shutout wins over Cheyney, Lock Haven, and Clarion. Its other wins were over Southern Connecticut, Millersville, Slippery Rock, Edinboro, Mercyhurst, and Gannon (by a 38-35 count).
Second-year coach Curt Cignetti graduated from WVU in 1982 and is the son of former Mountaineer coach Frank Cignetti. In 2011, he had a 7-3 record.
The overall view of Indiana is concentrated on its defense — now No. 1 in the country. The Crimson Hawks also have the No. 2 rushing defense in the country — only behind Shepherd, which sports the nation’s best defense against the run.
Indiana runs the football. It won’t win if it can’t run. Harvie Tuck is a 5-foot-9, 215-pound halfback who had four 200-yard games even before being voted the most valuable player in the conference championship win Shippensburg. Tuck had 1,548 yards or 154 yards per game before seeing Shippensburg.
De’Antwan Williams rushed for another 809 yards in the season’s first 10 games.
The Indiana defense had Alexander Berdahl as its leading tackler.
Indiana quarterbacks average 160 passing yards per game while Crimson Hawk opponents average 173 yards a game through the air. Indiana had lost only three interceptions through its first 10 games.
Shepherd hasn’t run much all year. Winning has come from the ground attack-stopping defense and a wealth of special teams contributions. The Rams have shown a decided edge in the turnover department.
In beating Fairmont last Saturday in a playoff-clinching win, the Rams had wide receiver Billy Brown incur a leg injury that would badly dilute Shepherd’s pass offense if he can’t play or is compromised against Indiana.
Indiana wants to run. Shepherd must harness the Crimson Hawk backs.
Shepherd hasn’t run much at all. It must have Brown, Larry Lowe, Robert Byrd and company catching passes and getting yardage after their receptions or it won’t win.
If the Shepherd offensive line doesn’t protect quarterback Bobby Cooper, the Rams will need a fistful of special teams and defensive highlights to win.
Indiana is at home in western Pennsylvania. The long-range weather forecast is for partly cloudy skies with a high temperature of about 50 degrees for Saturday. Not at all bad for this time of year in coal country.
Without a resourceful rushing offense and without a Shippensburg-like pass offense, Shepherd has still won. Even with two unbeaten regular seasons and an appearance in the national semifinals, this is still Cater’s most skillful coaching job of his 26-year career at Shepherd.