Almost halfway through their respective seasons, the University of Charleston and West Virginia State football teams remain in the hunt for a Mountain East Conference championship.
The Yellow Jackets (4-1, 4-0 MEC) are enjoying their best start in their MEC tenure, while the Golden Eagles (4-1, 3-1 MEC) have just the blemish of a loss to Urbana on their conference record.
Yet neither team has a chance to rest, especially this Saturday.
Charleston hosts Notre Dame College, the MEC leader (5-0, 5-0 MEC) and tied for fifth nationally, at noon. WVSU hits the road for a 1 p.m. kickoff against Fairmont State (1-4, 1-4 MEC), which began the season nationally ranked but has lost three straight.
UC coach Pat Kirkland doesn’t really see a flaw in Notre Dame. The Falcons score more points (45.8 per game) and are a close second to Frostburg State in points allowed (21.8 per game) in the conference. But the spotlight shines brightest on sophomore running back Jaleel McLaughlin.
McLaughlin leads all of Division II with 921 rushing yards, 184.2 per game, and has scored a nation’s-best 12 touchdowns. Yet for all of McLaughlin’s athleticism, Kirkland sees another strength when he watches him on film.
“I don’t think people realize how durable he is,” Kirkland said. “He gets lots of carries and takes some big shots, but he keeps getting up.”
Offensively for UC, quarterback Brant Grisel has been making the headlines, averaging 317 passing yards, fourth best in the nation. But the Golden Eagles were able to get their running game going in last Saturday’s win at Wheeling University, finishing with 332 yards and 7.5 per carry.
“That was the best our offensive line had played all year,” Kirkland said. “I really got a lot of pleasure out of that. That takes a lot of pressure off Brant.”
When West Virginia State coach John Pennington watches film on Fairmont State, he doesn’t think what he sees matches the record the Falcons have put up so far.
“They look really, really good,” he said. “I don’t know, to be honest.”
In last Saturday’s 22-15 loss to Glenville State, two Pioneer touchdowns were scored off interceptions from Fairmont quarterback Takwan Crews-Naylor, two of the seven turnovers the Falcons committed. Two other losses were by three points to UC and in double overtime to Frostburg.
Despite a five-interception day from Crews-Naylor, the quarterback still ranks eighth nationally at 300.4 passing yards per game. The Falcons also rank fourth nationally at 516.8 yards of total offense per game and score 38 points per game.
And while FSU has recorded just six sacks, Pennington still thinks the Falcons have one of the best defensive fronts in the conference.
“Their whole D-line is big and twitchy,” he said. “And they have a nose, Glenwood Williams, we’ve been going against him for years and he just controls the front. It makes it hard to do anything.”
The Yellow Jackets haven’t beaten Fairmont State since 2015, so the players understand Saturday’s task won’t be easy, regardless of the Falcons’ record. They also know from watching the film that the talent that led FSU to open the season in the national top 25 is still there.
“This week, we didn’t have to do anything,” Pennington said. “The players knew. It didn’t take a whole lot of arm-twisting. When the players saw the film, it was obvious.”