SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. – Neither the Mountain East Conference, nor its descendant conference, the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, had never had a team advance to the NCAA D2 Football Championship game since the former WVIAC transitioned from the NAIA in the 1990s.
“It’s been a situation where we’ve played well and we’ve been able to get past the stigma that the PSAC is the only conference in [Super Region 1] that really is going to get teams into the playoffs,” Shepherd head coach Monte Cater said. “That’s a good league, but with Concord in it last year and what we were able to accomplish in 2010, we all had to go through (the PSAC). I’m just really happy that we’ve been able to take one more step. I know we’ve got a great challenge next week” against BR-1 Northwest Missouri, a 38-23 winner over BR-6 West Georgia.
The 1967 NAIA champions from Fairmont State are the only MEC/WVIAC team to have ever won a national football title; Glenville State made two appearances in the NAIA championship game, losing to Northwestern (Iowa) for the 1973 NAIA Division II title and to East Central for the 1993 NAIA Division I title.
Now, Shepherd stands one game away from bringing a national title back to West Virginia. And the Rams accomplished this without their junior quarterback and Harlon Hill Trophy finalists Jeff Ziemba, who suffered an upper body injury in the early stages of the game. Yet, sophomore Connor Jessop stepped in and helped guide Shepherd to the national title game.
“He understands what Jeff’s going through because there’s a lot of harassing going on and a lot of pressure,” Cater said. “To go in that situation and almost having him be cold is just a tremendous ability … I can’t say enough who well that he did.”
Jessop completed 15-of-20 passes for 173 yards, two touchdowns and, most notably, no interceptions against a Grand Valley defense which forced 36 turnovers on the season. Not too shabby for a backup who threw eight passes on the entire season, completing five (including three touchdowns).
“It all happened very quickly,” Jessop said. “You don’t have time to really think about it. You just grab your helmet, get out there and get the play call. It took a couple plays for me to get used to the speed of the game. [Grand Valley did] a good job of disguising coverages, showing us one thing and switching to the other.”
Tailback Allen Cross certainly wasn’t ready to have his collegiate career end.
The senior from Elkridge, Md. ran for 157 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a fourth quarter score which gave the Rams a 20-17 early in the fourth quarter.
“[Tight end Jamie (Deason) and center Jake (Kingston)] had great blocks on both of those runs and I’m just trying to make a play,” Cross said. After Jeff went down, I was trying to find the best way for us to win. I’m not ready to go home yet.”
Deason and Kingston anchored an offensive line which had been overlooked in the pre-game hype surrounding the game.
“They really took it as a motivation factor that they weren’t mentioned earlier this week,” Cross said. “[Cater] talked about Jeff and Billy – which anybody would – but they felt like they were overlooked coming into the game. They did a good job of establishing themselves.”
That touchdown came after Elijah Norris blocked a Joel Schipper 37 yard field goal which would’ve given Grand Valley a 20-14 lead. Instead, the Rams took over with decent field position.
“Last year, we could’ve been in a similar situation, but special teams never came through during big games,” said senior defensive end Shaneil Jenkins. “That’s something that we’ve preached during the offseason. This year, whenever the offense or defense is struggling, the special teams have come through.”
On the drive leading to the blocked field goal, the Rams defense again stepped up, particularly junior defensive lineman Marshall Mundin, who blocked a Bart Williams pass and stuffed tailback Martayvius Carter for a four yard loss.
“Everybody says we’re not as deep as most of these other teams in the other Super Regions, but we’re deep,” Jenkins said. “We’ve got a lot of players in a lot of positions itching to get on the field. When they get on the field, they always come through and make a play.”
Two plays after Cross’ touchdown run, it was Adam Coles’ turn to shine. The junior cornerback picked Williams off at the Shepherd 46 for his second interception of the game.
“When you do what the coaches tell you to do, you can’t fail,” Coles said. “I just kept knocking the hands down and stayed disciplined. That technique put me in a great position to make both plays.”
The Rams offense answered when Jessop connected with Brown in the near corner of the endzone to give the Rams a 27-19 lead with 11:26 left to play.
“My team needs me to make plays and I take pride in doing it,” said Brown, who set the school’s all-time record for career receiving yards in the game.
The Rams defense had one more trick up their sleeve. Just two plays after Grand Valley took over, C.J. Davis picked off Williams and cashed in the pick-six with 10:30 left.
“It’s still surreal to me,” Davis said. “I really don’t remember the last five yards, it happened so quick. I’m just glad I had the opportunity to make that play.”
Shepherd’s defense struggled late in the first half and early in the third quarter to keep pace with the Lakers’ stable of wideouts. The Rams bent, but didn’t break.
“We were talking about staying inside the routes and I didn’t do a great job of it in the beginning of the game, but it finally sunk in,” Davis said.
Nearly three and a half hours later, the Shepherd Rams found themselves celebrating a trip to Kansas City and sinking the Lakers’ dreams of a seventh D2 football championship game appearance.