One could say that West Virginia State University vs. the University of Charleston is the biggest rivalry in the Kanawha Valley on any level.
No matter the sport, spectators travel near and far to see who will hold the bragging rights as the best team on either side of the Kanawha River. But this football matchup Saturday had a little added incentive for both teams.
Coming into the week, WVSU (6-3 overall, 6-2 Mountain East Conference) was ranked No. 5 in Super Region 1, meaning it would make the Division II playoffs if the season ended today. UC (6-3 overall, 5-3 MEC) had the opportunity to play spoiler as a win would almost certainly knock State out of that position and the playoffs.
Approximately three and a half minutes into the game, UC junior running back Tyreik McAllister raced 61 yards untouched up the middle of the field for an early 7-0 lead, and the Golden Eagles never trailed as they defeated the Yellow Jackets 49-24 in a locally televised game at Lakin Field at Dickerson Stadium.
The kickoff was rescheduled to 11 a.m., after originally being set for noon, to accommodate WOWK-TV.
With the cameras rolling and an approximate 500 people in attendance, McAllister stole the show.
McAllister rushed for 254 yards on 25 carries and two touchdowns, while also catching four passes for 56 yards and another score for UC.
“[McAllister’s] a great player,” said UC coach Pat Kirkland. “He’s a former receiver. He creates mismatches in the run game and also the passing game. I can’t say enough about him. He works hard at it. He will be the first to tell you that the offensive line did a tremendous job and really opened up some holes for him.”
On cue, McAllister was very appreciative of the effort from the guys up front.
“My last two games haven’t been great,” McAllister said. “I felt like this game was going to be big for me. We knew that we had a lot of key matchups that the coaches liked with me. But I couldn’t do it without my line and hopefully I can build on it.”
While McAllister admitted that the Golden Eagles were aware that a win could possibly derail State’s postseason hopes, the main goal was to win.
“We knew that we could possibly knock them out of the playoffs,” McAllister said, “but we didn’t really focus on that. We just wanted to come out and play our game and win.”
“These guys love this,” Kirkland added. “It’s a great rivalry. My hat goes off to [WVSU] Coach [John] Pennington and his staff because they are a really good football team and well coached. I was just proud of my guys the way they came out today. Tremendous effort and tremendous execution. They worked hard for it.”
After punts by both teams on their first possessions, on the fourth play of the UC’s next possession quarterback Brant Grisel connected with 6-foot-5 receiver Mike Strachan for an apparent 51-yard touchdown pass, in which Strachan snagged the ball away from the WVSU defender. But the touchdown was negated by a UC holding penalty.
But on the next play, McAllister scored on his 61-yard run, capping a four-play, 87-yard drive.
“UC did a great job,” said Pennington. “We tried to double their receiver [Strachan], which opened up some other things.”
McAllister scored his second touchdown on a 26-yard pass from Grisel to give UC a 14-0 lead. State quickly struck back with a touchdown of its own on a Dylan Lucas 9-yard run. But it only took McAllister less than a minute to strike pay dirt for his third touchdown of the day on a 43-yard run.
At the half, UC led 21-10 after State’s Martin Ahlstroem connected on a 25-yard field goal.
“We have to figure out how to do a better job of getting a lead early and holding on to it.” Pennington said. “It’s felt like all year us getting down and having to come back. I love our fight and resilience. We have to figure out a way to get started a little faster.”
After Grisel connected with Strachan on an 18-yard scoring pass and Gus Myers scored on a 4-yard run to give UC a 35-10 lead, State showed fight, scoring 14 straight points on quarterback Austin Hensley touchdown passes of 29 and 19 yards to Tyrone Lyte and Isiah Scott, respectively, to close the gap to 35-24. On the later score, Scott stretched out vertically and snagged the ball in the back of the end zone. Unfortunately for State, its rally would end there as UC tagged on two more scores on a Joe Street 6-yard run and a Quinard Thomas 21-yard interception return.
Grisel finished 12 of 18 for 148 passing yards and two touchdowns for UC.
For State, Hensley finished 38 of 53 for 362 yards and two touchdowns but had three passes intercepted, while Scott caught 12 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown. Linebacker Dustin Crouser, who came into the game fifth in solo tackles in all of Division II, finished with 15 total tackles, in which four were unassisted.
“Disappointed obviously,” Pennington added. “You can always take away something from this game. The resilience of our team and the way we prepared all week was awesome. They did a lot of things right. We have to find out what those things were and fix the things that are causing us to get down early.”