Heat is on

Shepherd vs. Raiders first game may be best

Nobody will be ready to quit summer. The heat will be there at Ram Stadium on Sept. 7. The dust will not have settled from the late-summer lack of rain.

[cleeng_content id="170024387" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]But if you are a college football fan then your destination that Saturday had better be Shepherdstown for the noon kickoff of the football game between Shepherd and highly-ranked Shippensburg.

Both teams will come in from newly configured conferences.

Shepherd Lineman Robert Hayned was an all- conference player in 2012.

Shepherd Lineman Robert Hayned was an all- conference player
in 2012.

Shepherd will be joining the first-year Mountain East Conference along with 11 other schools in West Virginia, Ohio, and Virginia. Shippensburg will become a part of the largest league in the nation in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.

The PSAC enlarges to 18 schools now that Seton Hill and Pitt-Johnstown have become full-fledged members. All 18 schools are from the state of Pennsylvania. Why will this first game of the 2013 season be such an interesting one?

Shepherd is coming off an 8-2 regular season record that included the last championship ever awarded by the now defunct West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. The Rams were invited to the 2012 NCAA Division II playoffs where they were beaten by Indiana (IUP), the champions of the same league where Shippensburg is a member.

Shippensburg had a perfect 10-0 regular season record in a 2012 season that began with a second-half comeback that was enough to defeat Shepherd.

The high-powered Red Raiders then were stopped by Indiana in the conference championship game. In the NCAA Division II playoffs, Shippensburg opened at home with a 58-20 pounding of once-beaten Bloomsburg. In its next playoff game, the Red Raiders were stopped, 37-14, by Winston-Salem State.

When it recovered nicely from its season-opening loss at Shippensburg, Shepherd went on to win seven of its eight conference games and took home another WVIAC championship. Balance helped the Rams to their title. With both a young offense and equally young defense the Rams were never flashy or had individuals that had dominant seasons.

Players were selected to the all-conference teams and acceptable statistics were counted but no players overrode what the team did. And what the team did was win a high percentage of its games. And win the league championship.

If Shepherd’s offense was full of underclassmen last year, who were they? Starting with the offensive line, there were no seniors.

Jordan Dixon. Sean Hull. Hussam Ouri. Isaiah Shelton. Dameon Hairston. Cody Walko. Six linemen for five positions. That young group had problems at times. But now that the 2013 season approaches having that many returnees is a panacea for long-time coach Monte Carter and his long-time staff of assistants.

Wide receivers that had their moments were then-freshman Billy Brown as well as Justin Ford and William McKenzie. Brown played so effectively in the last several games of the regular season that he actually stood above the rest of the receivers.

Historically known for its all-conference and All-America running backs during the quarter-century-plus that Cater has been at Shepherd, the Rams didn’t have such a player last season. Things were different. There was neither an all-conference nor an All-America runner at Cater’s disposal.

Jihad Rasheed, Mike Haynes and Allen Cross were all underclassmen and all contributed at some point.

The leader of the quarterbacks is Trae Tinsman, a junior who played two seasons behind starter Bobby Cooper. Cooper was a senior last season.

Shepherd’s defense had run-stoppers Mike Franklin and Robert Hayes along the line where Howard Jones, Tim Durant and Xavier Tyler also kept opposition runners to very little yardage.

There were a number of linebackers and defensive backs whose playing time was generous and they were Dominique Dixon, D.J. Scott, Keon Robinson, Levi Barber and Bryan Blue. All of those players were underclassmen in 2012.

Why is Shippensburg so dangerous again? Mainly because it has national statistical leader Zach Zulli at quarterback and has a nucleus of defensive starters returning.

Zulli was a passing wizard as the Red Raiders averaged 52.7 points per game when Shippensburg was 10-0. Zulli passed Shippensburg opponents (including Shepherd) into submission. The Red Raiders scored 73 points against Kutztown. East Stroudsburg surrendered 63 points, Millersville was stung for 61 points and Cheyney yielded another 61 points. Slippery Rock fell when it was troubled by the 55 points it allowed and both then-unbeaten Bloomsburg and Lock Haven gave up 49 points.

In the 2012 season-opener at Seth Grove Stadium, Shepherd held a 28-17 lead at the half. The Rams were trying for their eighth straight win over the Red Raiders. But Zulli threw for three second-hald touchdowns, Shepherd couldn’t score after halftime and Shippensburg had a 38-28 win in the end.

In Shippensburg’s first 10 games, Zulli averaged nearly 500 passing yards per outing. In all 13 games (two of the last three being losses), Zulli completed 342-of-544 passes for 4,747 yards and an incredible 54 touchdowns. He was intercepted 10 times.

Second-leading receiver Trevor Harman returns showing his 1,200 yards on 75 receptions from last year. He had 19 reception touchdowns. Sheldon Mayer had 26 catches, but Shippensburg will miss Jacob Baskerville and his 85 recptions for 1,405 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Defensively, the Red Raiders started seven unclassmen among their eight leading tacklers.

The leading tackler was Brian Souber whose 66 solo stops helped him to a total of 103 tackles. Jake Metz (76 tackles), Avery Coleman (73 tackles), Mike Goode (70 tackles), James Brennan (60 tackles), Tyriq Kershaw (59 tackles) and James Cooper (51 tackles) were all underclassmen. Cooper, Goode, Kershaw and Coleman all played in the defensive secondary for then-second year head coach Mark Maciejewski.

The Sept. 7 Shepherd vs. Shippensburg game should be the best game in the country in the Division II ranks that weekend. And it could be one of the best games played nation-wide in the whole of the season.

It comes while the heat is still with us and summer hasn’t left and while Shepherd joins the untested waters of the Mountain East Conference and the Red Raiders of the PSAC are joined by new members Seton Hill and Pitt-Johnstown.

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