The Rams (10-0, 10-0 MEC) finished the regular season undefeated with a 10-0 record for the seventh time in ever by going on the road to Wise, Va., and putting on an offensive clinic in a 63-35 rout of the UVa-Wise Cavaliers (5-6, 4-6 MEC) Saturday afternoon.
Despite a few unproductive drives early on in the game, the Rams registered 567 yards of total offense, moving the ball up and down the field at will against the Cavaliers’ defense.
In the first quarter, however, the Rams were still finding their footing. With the score still 0-0, senior quarterback Connor Jessop (25/45, 386 yards, 4 touchdowns, 1 interception, 6 carries, 40 yards) weaved his way through the Cavaliers’ defense to score a five-yard touchdown run on first and goal.
This gave the Rams a 7-0 lead with 4:58 to play in the first quarter, but this would hardly be the Rams’ last score of the day.
Senior running back Jabre Lolley (13 carries, 99 yards, 3 rushing touchdowns, 1 reception, 14 yards) imposed his will on the Cavaliers’ defense as well, as he scored the first of his three rushing touchdowns with a five-yard run of his own that extended the Rams’ lead to 14-0 early in the second quarter.
Junior wide receiver Wanya Allen (8 receptions, 118 yards, 2 touchdowns), Duron Norris (2 receptions, 21 yards, 1 touchdown), and senior wide receiver Ryan Feiss (12 receptions, 173 yards, 1 touchdown) would catch 15, 16, and 28-yard touchdowns, respectively, from Jessop to help give the Rams a 35-7 lead at halftime.
Jessop found himself in the record books again with his four passing touchdown performance, as he now has 38 on the season. This is now the new MEC single-season record for touchdown passes in a single season, surpassing Notre Dame Ohio’s Ray Russ, who threw 36 touchdown passes in 2014.
The Cavaliers managed their only scoring drive of the first half right after Allen’s touchdown at the 11:29 mark in the second quarter. Cavaliers cornerback Marquis Hamilton (5 tackles), a redshirt-freshman, returned the ensuing kickoff 78 yards to the Rams’ 22 yard line, giving life to the home crowd.
A facemask penalty on the Rams allowed the Cavaliers to start the drive on the Rams’ 11 yard line. A few plays into the drive, a penalty on the Rams’ defense brought the ball down to the two yard line, setting up a two-yard touchdown run by senior running back Javonte Latney (7 carries, 21 yards, 1 touchdown) of the Cavaliers, which trimmed the Rams’ lead to 21-7 with 10:01 to play in the second quarter.
As indicated by the scoreboard, the Rams’ defense played remarkably well in the first half to match the offensive production put on display by Jessop and the offense.
Not wanting to get embarrassed at home, the Cavaliers’ Josh Saunders, a sophomore defensive back, ran back the opening kickoff of the second half 100 yards for a touchdown that gave the Cavaliers new life, but still found themselves trailing by three scores with a 35-14 deficit.
Quarterback Brycen Lee (2/5, 10 yards) started the game for the Cavaliers, as freshman Jarome Johnson (10/13, 55 yards, 7 carries, 8 yards) got his time in as well, serving as a dual-threat in the passing and running game as a quarterback. However, the Cavaliers needed Jake Sturgill to provide a spark in the second half, and boy did he provide one.
Sturgill (14/33, 144 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception) threw two touchdown passes to junior wide receiver Kajan Duverger (5 receptions, 61 yards, 2 touchdowns) that went 12 and six yards, respectively, that trimmed the Rams’ lead to 42-28 late in the third quarter, as the Rams were left searching for answers as to what happened to their large lead.
The first of Duverger’s touchdown receptions came off of a clutch fumble recovery by the Cavaliers’ defense from a Shepherd ball carrier. With the ball on the 12-yard line, it took the Cavaliers just one play to score.
Then, on the ensuing kickoff, Hamilton made another impact play on special teams with an onside kick recovery that the Rams did not play well, as the Cavaliers would start the drive at the Rams’ 49-yard line.
With all of the momentum of the world on their side, the Cavaliers marched down the field thanks to Sturgill and Duverger, who connected on the previously-mentioned six-yard touchdown.
Sturgill and Duverger were playing a two-man game largely, but it seemed to be working against the confused and frustrated Rams’ defense.
The Rams needed an answer, as not only the game was on the line, but potential playoff seeding was at stake as well. Then, just as the offense has done all season long, it mounted another key drive to gain some separation room.
Lolley capped off an 11-play, 76-yard drive with a two-yard touchdown run with 13:10 remaining in the fourth quarter that appeared to put the nail in the coffin on the Cavaliers, but the Cavaliers just would not quit in front of their home crowd.
Sophomore running back Devontae Jordan plowed his way into the end zone for a two-yard touchdown run of his own that narrowed the Rams’ lead to 49-35 with just 6:18 remaining.
The Cavaliers then proceeded to try another onside kick attempt, but senior outside linebacker Bradley Rinehart recovered the Cavaliers’ onside kick attempt at the Cavaliers’ 44-yard line, all but ending their comeback hopes.
If there was any hope left, it was erased when Lolley ran his way to a 44-yard touchdown run that put the Rams up 56-35 with 6:09 remaining. Lolley continued to make plays down the stretch to seal the victory for the Rams, as he has shown his clutch play all season long.
The Cavaliers’ defense battled hard during the whole game, but just could not manufacture enough key stops to pose a serious threat to the Rams.
Then, in a second half where the defense was put in a bad position and got exposed, Rams freshman linebacker Chrys Lane stepped in front of a Sturgill pass that he took back for a 26-yard touchdown that further sealed the deal for the Rams, giving them a 63-35 lead with 5:58 to play.
The Cavaliers found a groove offensively, but it ultimately came too little too late. The 259 yards of total offense proved to be far too insignificant to stay in the contest with the Rams.
No matter what the Cavaliers tried, running the football proved to be a tremendous challenge for them, as they managed just 43 yards on 32 carries for a 1.3 yards per carry average. This made their offense largely one-dimensional, as falling behind early on did not give them much time or ability to start establishing a ground game.
The Rams finished with 10.5 tackles for loss, as they got into the Cavaliers’ backfield seemingly whenever they wanted to. Senior defensive end Myles Humphrey was in the Cavaliers’ backfield frequently, causing great havoc with his three tackles for loss and one and a half sacks.
Fellow senior defensive end Bruno Anyangwe and Scott Dixon both had two tackles for loss as well.
Humphrey finished tied for second on the Rams in tackles, compiling seven during the game, as did Lane and sophomore outside linebacker Jared Austin.
On third down, the Rams were not spectacular, but still converted one-third of the time by converting three out of nine times. Third down was a problem for the Cavaliers, as they converted one-third of the time on third down as well, but were forced into 18 such plays and converted just six times.
This was certainly a game where the Rams made numerous mistakes, but they showed why they are one of the top teams in the country by making plays when it mattered most to hang on for the 63-35 victory.
By converting 9-of-9 point after attempts Saturday afternoon, senior kicker Zach Wise now has the most extra point conversions in a single season in program history, as he now has 66 on the season. The previous record was held by former Rams kicker Eric Dobratz in 2010, when he converted 61 extra points of his own.
After the game, through email, the head coach of the Rams, Monte Cater, addressed how UVa-Wise got back into the game.
“The kick-off return for a touchdown and the three turnovers [we committed] were responsible for Wise getting back into the game. You can’t give the football away and we certainly can’t allow explosive plays by our opponents on Special Teams.”
However, Cater was impressed by how the Rams were able to finish the game and complete an undefeated season.
“I am proud of the way our young players have stepped up after so many injuries to our upperclassmen. Our staff did a great job of preparing so many inexperienced players to keep us in the hunt for a conference title.”
Looking ahead to the Rams’ playoff game this Saturday, Nov. 18, at home at 12:00 p.m. against Findlay Ohio, Cater believes the Rams have to stick to what they have done best.
“We will see a very high powered offense in Findlay University. They score a lot of points and have a very up-tempo style. At this point you want to be as healthy as possible, but rely on the things that got us to this point in the season: [a] strong offense, stingy defense and a consistent kicking game.”
Information from the Shepherd University Athletics’ website was used in this article.
Anthony Bracken is the Sports Editor of The Picket. He can be emailed at email@example.com