Both the University of Charleston and West Virginia State find themselves on the road this week and possibly up against their toughest opponents to date.While the Jackets may face the fiercer team, UC may be in the more important game.Charleston (2-0) will kick off its last tour of duty in the West Virginia Conference with a showdown at defending conference champion Concord (1-1), while State, fresh off a 77-0 beating at the hands of North Carolina A&T State, will travel to its second-straight Division I FCS opponent when it takes on Elon, N.C.Charleston is slated to kick off at 1 p.m. today while the Jackets will begin at 3 p.m.While the UC game on paper should be a big-time conference clash, injuries on both sides may have more to do with the outcome than either team could have envisioned.Quarterback Maurice Leak and running back Jordan Roberts were each sidelined in UC's 33-14 win over St. Joseph last Thursday. Roberts said he'll play today but has been limited in practice, as has Leak. Backup quarterback John Knox will be prepared to take snaps today if needed. Knox looked good against St. Joseph, going 5 for 12 with 140 yards and two touchdowns, as did a stable of running backs.UC coach Pat Kirkland is confident in his team, whoever is on the field."This was the expectation, we wanted to be 2-0," Kirkland said. "We're excited to be here, but there are some things we've got to get corrected. The biggest thing is coming out of the gates strong. The effort is there, the enthusiasm is there, we've got to do a better job of our heart and our head meeting halfway. Sometimes there's too much of one and not enough of the other, but when we find that balance we're a pretty good football team."Pride will also be on the line for UC as the Mountain Lions strolled into University of Charleston Stadium in the third week last year and laid a 38-15 loss on the Golden Eagles en route to the conference title.
While most would agree that this year's UC squad more closely resembles the team from the second half of last year (5-1) than the first half (0-5), Kirkland admitted today's contest would be a tough one."They're the defending champions of our conference and they went to the NCAA playoffs last year," Kirkland said. "We've got to play our best game in order to put ourselves in a position to win. They are very balanced offensively."Most of that Concord balance flowed through senior quarterback Zack Grossi, who has completed 47 of 80 passes for 507 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions on the season. But a severe car crash on Monday not only put the Mountain Lion quarterback on the shelf this week, it has also ended his playing career.Grossi, who injured his leg and suffered other minor injuries, should be able to recover enough to live a normal life and is expected to be on the sidelines to lend support on today.
On the other end of the spectrum is UC freshman Knox, who would make his first start if Leak can't go.Still, even on the road, Kirkland has a lot of confidence in an unproven commodity."I think he's a good football player," Kirkland said. "Last week gave him a lot of confidence. He's been around Maurice Leak and he understands what it takes to win."Jackets need better startWest Virginia State (1-1) was limited to two first downs and 47 total yards last week, but Jackets coach Earl Monroe claims the tape showed the bludgeoning may not have been quite as bad as the score indicated."We looked at film and it wasn't as bad as we thought it was," Monroe said. "It was bad, but it was a case of one offensive lineman missing a block on this play and they're good enough to disrupt the play. They were good enough to take advantage of our mistakes.
"I honestly thought we were prepared to do a better than that and that we would compete. What happens when you get in an atmosphere like that, you have to have some things start off pretty good, and we started just the opposite. We had a punt snapped over our head, they recovered on the 2-yard line, and then we had several turnovers, they had short drives, and it was a downhill spiral. It's hard to rally the troops after such a bad start."While Monroe said most of his guys were walking around with "bruised egos" this week, the team is in large part healthy and Monroe hopes a second foray in a tougher classification may go a little bit more smoothly."The bright lights got to some of those guys," Monroe said of his team. "It's a bigger stadium, a bigger stage and the lights were awful bright for some of them, and you could see it. Now hopefully they relax because that game's over. Now that they've been in that atmosphere, hopefully they won't have that deer-in-the-headlights look."Monroe said while playing two-straight FCS schools is taxing on the players, the income it generates has allowed the school to buy new helmets and other equipment the team needed.No matter what the score ends up being today, Monroe said he hopes his team comes away with its health and some general toughness."Concord played Elon last season, got beat, and came back and won the conference championship," Monroe said. "I just hope to get the best out of the situation. Now we're on a bigger stage and under brighter lights, and when we get back to the conference maybe we'll be looking at a dimmer light. Hopefully this will toughen us up for conference play."Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948, firstname.lastname@example.org
, or follow him at twitter.com/RPritt.