SHEPHERDSTOWN — Legendary Florida A&M football coach Alonzo “Jake” Gaither (whose teams scored 100 points on occasion) often said he wanted players who were ‘agile, mobile and hostile’. Jake would have added “fragile” if he had witnessed Shepherd’s 34-23 championship-clinching win over Glenville last Saturday at wind-chilled Ram Stadium.
The Rams made too many mistakes in almost beating themselves. But they clinched at least a share of the last WVIAC championship that will be listed in the historic files of the league that got its start in 1924.
Special teams — usually a safety net when all else is failing the Rams — were a fumbling, sometimes-bumbling mess for most of the star-crossed afternoon.
But Glenville had its field full of errors. And so did the often flummoxed officiating crew that picked up flags and waived off penalties, marched off yardage in the wrong direction, lost count of what down it was, overruled each other, and in general was in disarray.
Shepherd’s last-minutes win elevated it to a spot all alone at the top of the conference with a 6-1 record, and a 7-2 overall mark that has the Rams in sixth place in the latest NCAA Division II Super Region One ratings where only the top six teams are selected for the national playoffs that begin on Nov. 17.
Glenville, which was tied at the top with the Rams before last Saturday went to 5-2 in the conference standings and 5-5 overall.
The list of Shepherd special team mistakes would have brought the “fragile” into Jake’s vocabulary.
There was kickoff return fumbled away when Shepherd already trailed, 7-0. A punt from the Glenville 34 went into the Pioneer end zone resulting in a net punt of 14 yards. Another kickoff was bobbled back to the Shepherd two where it was finally recovered. A punt return was fumbled but mercifully recovered by Howard Jones to avoid disaster there. A partially blocked Shepherd punt went 13 yards. Another punt went 19 yards. In the second half, Glenville twice ran for first-down yardage from punt formation as the Rams turned to set up their blocks for the punt that never came. Glenville blocked a Shepherd extra point attempt. And an off-setting penalties judgment was made when Shepherd had roughed the Glenville punter.
Shepherd did block a Glenville extra point attempt.
The Rams had five 15-yard penalties against them and totaled nine infractions for 90 yards. Glenville was penalized 11 times for 86 yards. On two occasions, off-setting penalties were called and the down replayed.
Trailing, 7-0, after Bobby Cooper’s pass was intercepted and returned for a score by Demetrius Quarles, Shepherd was fortunate when Glenville’s Colston Bayless missed a 41-yard field goal try.
Then Cooper completed five straight passes as the Rams traveled 76 yards in 12 plays with William McKenzie getting a touchdown with his 20-yard catch.
Larry Lowe had two pass receptions and the Pioneers incurred a 15-yard penalty on a 63-yard Shepherd scoring move that pushed the Rams into a 14-7 lead.
But then Glenville moved right back front and center when Robert Jiles was 15 yards behind the nearest Shepherd defender and accepted a Justin Feagin throw to complete a 63-yard scoring play.
It was 14-14 at the half.
After starting at its 47, Glenville had three first downs and reached the Shepherd 17 before Bayless was called on to try a 34-yard field goal. His kick was true. And Glenville was back in front, 17-14.
The teams struggled through penalties and could manage little offensively before the Rams took over on their 38 early in the fourth period.
Pass completions to McKenzie and Billy Brown, plus three useful runs from Allen Cross, had the Rams at the Pioneer 27 with a fourth-and-10 trouble spot stalling them.
Brown hauled in a difficult 24-yard over-the-shoulder catch that landed the Rams on the three . . . from where Cross scored his second of three touchdowns.
Minutes later, Shepherd cornerback DJ Hall was slow to rise after a play where he was jarred. The officials told Hall to leave the field. And Glenville struck immediately. Feagin threw a scoring strike of 31 yards to Jiles against Hall’s one-play replacement.
Shepherd suddenly trailed (again), 23-20, with fewer than two minutes left.
It was Brown who helped a quick-strike drive of 65 yards in just three plays when he hauled in a 22-yard Cooper pass along his sidelines for a first down at the Pioneer 46. On the next play, Cooper had time to find Lowe awaiting his 43-yard pass completion to the Glenville three. Cross scored on the next play.
The Pioneers hurried back with two Feagin pass completions, but then he was sacked by Demetrius Dixon . . . and left holding his face.
In came Tony Guidugli for one play. Guidugli threw late in the direction of a then-covered receiver . . . and Shepherd’s Dom Tolson made an interception that he romped with to the Pioneer end zone. It was Shepherd 34, Glenville 23 after 20 points had been scored in about 100 seconds.
Shepherd’s regular season has one all-important game to negotiate. Fairmont is at Ram Stadium this Saturday for a 12-noon start. A Shepherd win makes the Rams clear champions of the WVIAC. A win would send them to the NCAA national playoffs. Again.
A loss to Fairmont on Hall of Fame/Senior Day leaves the Rams with a likely co-championship that could be shared by as many as three teams. And the NCAA playoff field would certainly not include Shepherd.
Mobile. Agile. Hostile. And fragile. But a “fragile” winner sure beats a “robust and healthy” losing team.