Both the West Virginia State and University of Charleston football teams are trying to hit some enjoyable milestones Saturday. Some are more ceremonial, some are very official.
If the Yellow Jackets can knock off No. 15 Notre Dame College at noon Saturday at Lakin Field, they will win a share of the Mountain East Conference title. They actually could claim themselves as the conference’s top team, since they would have beaten the other two teams they’d tie with — Notre Dame and Frostburg State — head-to-head.
It would be the first time since a 1968 West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title that State could celebrate a conference title. But to get there, the Yellow Jackets must face a nationally ranked foe with the best running back in Division II.
No back in the division has come close to NDC’s Jaleel McLaughlin’s 1,845 yards and 24 touchdowns. The next closest in yards sits 164 yards back.
“He’s so explosive through the hole,” WVSU coach John Pennington said. “Once he finds a crease, he just explodes through it. It’s really difficult to not give up little creases here and there throughout the course of the game. At some point, he does a good job of finding that crease, and makes you pay for it.”
If there is one thing the Yellow Jackets (7-3, 7-2 MEC) want to do better against NDC (9-1, 8-1), it’s defend the run. They sit 10th in the 11-team league in allowing 206.1 rushing yards per game. In a loss to Charleston, Golden Eagles running back Tyreik McAllister rushed for 253 yards and two touchdowns.
If there’s any consolation in that, Notre Dame doesn’t have the weapons in the passing game that UC does, but with McLaughlin’s talent, that’s not much of a consolation.
“You know what’s coming,” Pennington said. “Whether you can stop it is another thing altogether.”
The prospects of earning a conference championship for the first time in decades is something that has the entire team focused on what’s in front of it.
“We want to be champions,” Pennington said. “We want to make the playoffs. That’s the result we want and we’re just locked into doing our jobs.”
For UC (7-3, 6-3 MEC), a win Saturday at West Liberty (5-5, 4-5) would continue a steady climb for the Golden Eagles since they stumbled to a 3-8 record in 2016. Charleston’s final win total grew to four in 2017, six in 2018 and could finish at eight this season if the Golden Eagles can stop the Hilltoppers.
“The thing that I’m excited about, especially defensively, is that we’re beat up pretty bad and guys have played pretty well the last few weeks on that side of the ball,” UC coach Pat Kirkland said. “There’s been a lot of young guys, which is exciting.”
Kirkland pointed out a couple of young players who have played exceptionally well. Freshman linebacker Keon Freeman enters the WLU game with 18 total tackles and 4½ for a loss. Redshirt sophomore B.J. Faniran has 22 total tackles, including 6½ for a loss and four sacks.
Kirkland also is excited to watch his explosive offense, led by quarterback Brant Grisel, one more time. After working as a backup and earning spot starting duty for most of his UC career, Grisel became the full-time starter in 2019 and didn’t disappoint.
He enters Saturday with 2,946 passing yards and 26 touchdowns against just seven interceptions.
“I’ve seen what that young man has been through, and it hasn’t been easy,” Kirkland said. “This year, I’m really excited to see him around some playmakers, because this is the guy we recruited out of high school.”