Shepherd Rams defeat Fairmont State 27-17 to Win Share of Mountain East Conference Championship

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Shepherd tees off a kickoff.

In what was a game for the ages, the Shepherd Rams defeated the Fairmont State Falcons 27-17 to win a share of the Mountain East Conference Championship.

Senior day for the athletes and a marriage proposal before the game were only a sign of things to come on this eventful Saturday afternoon. The record attendance of 6,751 set the stage for a great day for football action.

The Rams returned the opening kickoff inside Falcons’ territory, giving them great momentum to start. Senior quarterback Jeff Ziemba (14-of-25 passes for 192 yards, two touchdown passes) then found sophomore receiver Wanya Allen for a touchdown reception off of a read-option play that the Falcons were not prepared for. This put the Rams up 7-0 early in the first quarter.

Jared Austin and James Gupton tackling Fairmont
TATUM KING / The Picket
Jared Austin and James Gupton tackling Fairmont

However, the Falcons responded on their first drive, launching a deep ball down the left sideline that set them up with great field position. The Falcons were unable to capitalize though, thanks to two false start penalties that brought the ball back a bit.  They had to settle for a field goal as a result, making it 7-3 Rams.

After the Rams’ first possession, they had trouble getting anything going offensively for the rest of the half. The run game was non-existent, which did not help Ziemba at all when attempting passes. Countless times receivers could not get open as Ziemba scrambled outside the pocket to extend the play, only to get sacked a fair number of times.

With the momentum on their side, the Falcons started to find gaps in the Shepherd secondary to exploit, continually getting first downs. This set up a touchdown reception on the left front corner of the end zone by the Falcons’  Jeff Iweh, off a nice throw by quarterback Cooper Hibbs (25-of-53 passes for 322 yards, two touchdown passes) of the Falcons. This tied the score at 10 all going into the half.

Knowing the implications of the game, the Rams made the necessary halftime adjustments and came out sharp in the second half. After both offenses traded punts to start the second half, the Falcons had the ball in their own end zone on third down. Quarterback of the Falcons had his pass intercepted by the Rams’ outside linebacker Jared Austin, who returned it for a touchdown, which was arguably the biggest play of the game. This made the score 17-10 Rams early in the third quarter.

Once the Rams got the ball back, the offense was able to establish the running game like it did not the first half, rushing the first four plays of the drive and getting deep into Falcons’ territory. Then, knowing the defense was concentrating on the run, quarterback Jeff Ziemba took advantage and found a receiver deep down the right sideline to set up the Rams with a first and goal.

The next play, Ziemba found star receiver Billy Brown for a touchdown on a slant route that gave the Rams a 24-10 cushion in the third quarter.

Shepherd receiver tries to shake away Falcons' defender.
Jason Fischetti/The Picket
Shepherd receiver tries to shake away Falcons’ defender.

Recognizing the urgency at hand, the Falcons responded on the next play from scrimmage. Quarterback Cooper Hibbs found receiver Laurence King for a 74-yard touchdown, blazing right through the secondary untouched the whole way. This quieted the Shepherd crowd and made it a one-possession game at 24-17, still in the third quarter.

Both teams exhibited great difficulties in the kicking game. The Rams, set up with a short field goal in the third, could not convert, as the kick sailed wide right. Also, later in the fourth quarter, after the Rams’ defense strip-sacked Hibbs and set the offense up with the short field, the Rams again could not convert a short field goal attempt, as this one also went wide right as well. Thus, 6 points were left on the board for the Rams.

The Falcons had their special teams blunder when their kicker missed a short field goal after a big kickoff return that set up the offense in great field position after a Rams’ touchdown in the third quarter. The kicked banked off the right upright and was no good.

When the Rams had the ball deep in Falcons’ territory again and fourth down came up, Coach Cater instructed the offense to go for it on fourth down. Ziemba was patient, waited for the route to develop, and found receiver Billy Brown for a first down that set up a first and goal for Shepherd. However, after Ziemba got sacked on fourth down, the kicking unit came on, but this time converted, making it 27-17 Rams with most of the fourth quarter still to play.

Just like the offense was able to establish the running game in the second half, the Rams’ defense finally got to Hibbs, getting in his face and sacking him seven times throughout the game. He did not have the time he had in the first half to throw the ball, which affected his rhythm with his receivers.

Quarterback Jeff Ziemba fires a pass against the Falcons' defense.
Jason Fischetti/The Picket
Quarterback Jeff Ziemba fires a pass against the Falcons’ defense.

When the Falcons’ got the ball back with about five minutes remaining, the tension was extreme. Repeatedly the Rams’ defense forced fourth down for the Falcons’ offense, but could not get them off of the field. Quarterback kept finding ways to keep the drive alive, continually coming through in the clutch on third down.

What came back to hurt the Falcons was that they used all three of their timeouts after getting sacked or stopped to get reorganized when they could have used them later in the game to stop the clock. With 27 seconds left, the Falcons attempted a field goal to make it a one-score game. However, a mishandled snap by the holder resulted in the kicker having to pick the ball up and chuck the ball into the end zone, where it was picked off by a Shepherd defender, sealing the game.

The Rams had 304 yards of total offense, while the Falcons managed 387.

Shepherd will play at Urbana next Saturday, Nov. 12, at 1.pm. to conclude their regular season.

Anthony Bracken is a Sports Reporter for The Picket. He can be reached at abrack02@rams.shepherd.edu