“This is a huge day for us to have an opportunity to host a playoff game of this caliber this late in the season,” said Shepherd head coach Monte Cater. “It’s great for Shepherd, it’s great for [the Mountain East Conference] and it’s great for [West Virginia]. Grand Valley is going to be the best team we’ve played since I’ve been here.”
Here are four more takeaways from Cater’s press tele-conference (organized by the Mountain East Conference on Wednesday)…
BETTER LATE THAN NEVER
The Rams overcame a controversial touchdown on a blocked kick in the third quarter of the IUP game with a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns to eliminate the Crimson Hawks 17-13.
“We certainly played better in the second half than we did in the first half in both games,” Cater said. “We waited very late against IUP, but I think we stepped it up across the board.”
Coming out of the locker room tied 7-7, the Rams scored three touchdowns in the third quarter to pull away. Although The Rock managed to get within nine points at the start of the fourth quarter, Shepherd’s lockdown defense preserved the 28-16 win.
“Our defense played a lot better against Slippery Rock in the second half,” Cater said. “There was certainly more pressure on the quarterback, which limited the things they were able to do on offense.”
That’s a common thread throughout the D2 football playoffs. As teams advance further, the challenges get tougher for opposing offenses.
“We’ve seen better defenses (in the playoffs) and being able to find a way to get a couple scores later in the ballgame” helps, Cater said.
ELEMENT OF THE UNKNOWN
If there’s one thing that’s consistent, it’s the element of the unknown for teams advancing through the D2 football playoffs. Consistent is one way Cater described Grand Valley.
“If you go ahead and move up the ladder and stay in this thing long enough, you are certainly going to find very good football teams,” Cater said. “We’re going to have our hands full and some of the things Grand Valley does are so consistent. There’s a reason why they’ve won 12 games.”
Advances in technology, including nearly instant access to game film, does help game planning. But only to a certain degree.
“It’s tough to judge speed on film,” Cater said “I’m hoping that we had our film turned up a little faster than we were supposed to, because they certainly get after it and run real well.”
The other challenge of planning for playoff opponents is the lack of common opponents.
“We know some of the things that they are able to do and do well and things that we have to prepare for,” Cater said. “It’s hard anytime you get outside your region to really be able to go ahead to get a fine point idea of what they’re doing.
With four national championships, six title game appearances and eight semifinals appearances in 17 D2 football playoffs appearances, Grand Valley might arguably be the most decorated opponent to visit the Eastern Panhandle.
“Every year is different, every ballclub is going to be different,” Cater said. “But, the consistency there is tremendous. You have to respect that and pay homage to it and they have a chance to be that consistent almost every year.”
The Lakers proved that point by bouncing back from a 6-5 mark last season to make their second semifinals appearance in the last three seasons.
“The fact that they’ve been there so often and have had a chance to not only make it this far but to get revenge against the two teams that beat them earlier in the season,” Cater said “They’re playing their best football right now and that’s what everybody would like to be able to do.”
As a redshirt freshman, quarterback Jeff Ziemba threw three interceptions, including two in the fourth quarter which were returned for touchdowns, in Shepherd’s 28-7 loss to West Chester in the 2013 Super Region 1 championship game.
“He got thrown into that when he was a redshirt freshman; These last two years, he’s been steadily able to grow, take care of the football, be able to have pocket presence, move around and keep the play alive a little longer.
Now, the junior from Newark, Del. enters Saturday’s game as a Harlon Hill Trophy finalist whose Rams are one win away from punching their tickets to Kansas City.
“Jeff does a nice job of not forcing the football,” Cater said. “Even with pressure, he knows when to adjust as he has to to different types of coverages.”
Entering Saturday’s game, Ziemba has thrown 29 touchdowns against just four interceptions.
“He’s been very consistent,” Cater said. “He doesn’t turn the ball over, he doesn’t force the ball where it doesn’t need to go.”One challenge for the Rams earlier in the season, however, has been a relatively new offensive line which was hit hard at the start of the season with three seniors having graduated.
“Those guys have been together for a year now and they’ve been able to grow as he has,” Cater said.
Shepherd’s home field advantage is reflected in their 115-34 record during Cater’s 29 year tenure in Shepherdstown, including a 78-14 record at Ram Stadium since 2000.
“There’s a comfort level there, certainly until the game starts,” Cater said. “But it’s nice that you don’t have to concern yourself about travel and hotels and things like that.”
Despite playing the IUP game during Thanksgiving break, the Rams still drew 5,007 fans; that figure increased slightly last week, when 5,321 fans saw Shepherd capture the Super Region 1 title.
“We get great crowds, certainly more than the other schools in our league,” Cater said. “They’re excited, but they realize the talent level of the team they’re going to be playing and they know they’re going to have to play very, very well.”
There’s also the matter of final exams taking place this week.
“The toughest part for us (this week) is going through that last week of finals,” Cater said. “They went through the week of Thanksgiving Break with everybody gone.”
Drawing 90 percent of your roster from within two hours of Shepherdstown, an area which includes the Baltimore-Washington corridor, and strong fan support from larger cities such as Hagerstown, Md. and Winchester, Va. is another plus.
“Their family and friends can get there and not have to drive across the country or fly across the country to be there on parent’s day or homecoming,” Cater said. “It’s a great situation for us. Our kids, and certainly our coaches, treasure the idea that there’s going to be a lot of people there, hopefully making a lot of noise, and hopefully we can please them with a performance on Saturday.”