Last season, the Shippensburg Red Raiders broke the Rams’ hearts in a stunning defeat. However, in the season opener Saturday, Sept. 7, the Rams sent a strong, definitive message to all football teams of the NCAA Division II. Shepherd dominated the Red Raiders, 33-0.
The Rams’ defense stepped up big time with an answer for everything that Shippensburg threw at them. The defense forced six turnovers while simultaneously pitching a shutout. 2012 Harlon Hill award winning quarterback Zach Zulli could not keep up; he went 13 for 27 with 140 yards and two interceptions.
Shepherd brought back eight returning starters on defense this season, but it was the freshmen that made the biggest mark. Freshman linebacker Octavius Thomas of Myrtle Beach, S.C. recorded a team-high seven tackles, six of which were solo. His performance provided a spark for the defense.
The Rams’ defense dominated Saturday, like they have done in past years, but the biggest question heading into Saturday’s game wasn’t the defense. It was if Shepherd’s junior quarterback Trae Tinsman of Winchester, Va. could fill the void left by last year’s starter, Bobby Cooper. If there were any questions about how the offense would perform, those questions were answered in an indubitable manner.
Tinsman went 14 for 23 with 138 yards and two touchdowns. He had two tipped passes early in the game, but after the shaky start, he got into a groove by connecting two first half touchdown passes with senior Robert Byrd and sophomore wide receiver Dalton Boyd. Tinsman’s solid day against an elite opponent will go a long way in silencing doubters.
The Rams’ offense has always been defined by the running game and there was plenty of firepower on the ground. The rushing attacks alone accounted for 243 yards of offense, but the star of the ground game was freshman running back Jabre Lolley. The Wilmington, Del. native had 18 carries for 95 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Shippensburg entered the game ranked seventh in the NCAA Division II football coaches’ poll. Their performance did not warrant such a high ranking at all, and shows much of the hypocrisy of preseason rankings. The Rams’ defense suffocated Shippensburg’s high-octane offense as they could only manage 217 yards of total offense. To put that into perspective, the Rams gained 26 yards more than that on the ground alone.
With the win, Shepherd took an 11-5 edge in the Great Valley Classic series between the two schools. The Rams also reminded everybody of how dominant they can be when the they strap on their helmets in Shepherdstown. The Rams have not lost a home game since November 2010. That is a fairly impressive run of 12 straight victories in front of home fans.
Shepherd’s record now stands at 1-0 as they look to become the first champions in the history of the newly-formed Mountain East Conference. The Rams next game Sept. 14 is away against the Fairmont State Fighting Falcons at 1 p.m.
Everything must be taken with a grain of salt. No one will doubt that the Rams’ performance Saturday was far more superior than Shippensburg’s. That game is now part of the past. It is time to look to the future. Should the Rams successfully adopt the mindset of beating the next man up, it could be a very interesting fall in West Virginia’s panhandle.