Shepherd's Keon Robinson drags West Virginia State defenders during a first-half run. Joe Thornton of the Yellow Jackets hangs on to make the tackle.
INSTITUTE -- For the game's first 26 minutes, West Virginia State kept Shepherd out of the end zone, thereby throwing the Rams' postseason plans into question.In four of the past seven seasons, the Rams have represented the West Virginia Conference in the NCAA Division II playoffs - and advanced to the national semifinals two years ago - but they're treading a fine line at the moment. They need to win their remaining games to stay in contention for NCAA berths that are given out on an at-large basis.Perhaps feeling some added urgency, the Eastern Panhandle school responded with big plays, including two special-teams touchdowns and an interception return for a TD, to take control and defeat the Yellow Jackets 40-21 Saturday afternoon at Lakin Field. A crowd of about 400 attended.Last week, the Rams suffered a crushing one-point loss to West Liberty, missing an extra-point kick that would have tied the game with 1:33 left, and dropped out of the Division II top 25 poll.
"That one last week is going to hurt us,'' said Monte Cater, the Rams' coach for 26 seasons. "If we can win these last two after a week off, then we can get at least a share of the [WVC] title, and that's the most important thing because then you have a chance to go [to the postseason].''State (2-6) used a nice defensive stand to halt the Rams' opening drive at the Jackets 4 and then forced a couple of punts. But Shepherd (6-2) finally scored with 3:28 left in the first half on Jihad Rasheed's 3-yard run, capping an 82-yard drive, and scored again with 2:01 left in the half on Keon Robinson's 61-yard punt return, giving the Rams a 14-0 halftime lead.State quarterback Ricky Phillips hit Shanin Bennefield on a 9-yard TD pass early in the second half to cut the deficit to 14-6 (the extra-point kick was blocked). But the Rams quickly broke the game open.Shepherd's Ryan Earls kicked a 31-yard field goal and, in a 74-second span late in the third quarter, the Rams added three touchdowns - Bobby Cooper's 6-yard pass to John Frick, De'Ontre Johnson's 33-yard interception return and Robinson's 88-yard kickoff return. The Rams led 38-13."We came out a little slow,'' said Cooper, who alternated at quarterback with Trae Tinsman. "It took us a little while to get going. But our defense made some plays; our special teams made some plays, and our offense fed off that.'' Shepherd, which has not lost to State since 1980, outgained State by just 379-323 in total offense, but the two special-teams scores and interception return made the difference."I'm not making any excuses; Shepherd did a good job,'' said State coach Earl Monroe. "[The special teams] are a little watered down when you get a few injuries. I looked at the kickoff team, and there were about all new guys this week. We've got to do a better job. We may have to keep starters on there. When you get this late in the year, those guys are banged up, so you kind of spell them on special teams, but you can't do it. It's one-third of the contest.''Phillips completed 20 of 33 passes for 233 yards, including eight to Ervin Kent for 114. Phillips also hit Aubura Taylor on a 10-yard scoring pass, and State's Robert Dooley broke loose on a 39-yard TD run."The guys are fighting,'' said Monroe. "They're bumped and bruised and everything, but they're fighting every single week. Some weeks are better than others, but we have to get to the point where we're creating those turnovers, making those plays, getting those runbacks.''Reach Mike Whiteford at email@example.com.