Raymond Franze

MEC Survives Super Region 1- Shepherd Advances to the Semi-Finals

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Photos courtesy of John and Pam Boyle

Shepherd 41
California (PA) 30

*Game Notes follow the Recap*

Game Recap

Wow, what a game!

Fans on both sides of the field covered the emotional spectrum experiencing both despair and elation.

A dismal start to the game saw the Rams trailing 0-17 only halfway through the first quarter.

The hole started with the opening possession of the game. The Rams began at their own 10 yard line. After a three-and-out that netted a loss of one yard, the ensuing punt set the Vulcans up inside Shepherd territory. Thirty-five yards later and Cal. started the scoring with a 30-yard field goal. On the third play of Shepherd’s next drive, Vulcan cornerback Vondel Bell tipped, then intercepted a pass and returned it to the 3-yard line. California wasted no time as it took just one rush from James Franklin to reach the end zone. Shepherd’s next attempt on offense resulted in a second three-and-out. The Vulcans looked to have great field position again, but Vulcan’s weapon Garry Brown returned the punt for a touchdown.

At this point, things were looking bleak for the Rams. They trailed by three scores and the offense only mustered one first down in three of its opening drives. Of course in the home stands the crowd was excited, many probably believing the lead was more than enough to carry the Vulcans to victory.

How would the Rams respond? Sure they’ve trailed in playoff games, but not this deep of a hole—the 2015 national championship notwithstanding, It’s possible the Rams took comfort in realizing at that point in the game, California only managed three points when its offense had to sustain a drive.

Desperate to get on the board before the game was truly out of hand, Shepherd’s offense marched 57 yards in six plays on the ensuing drive. The exclamation mark was a 33-yard touchdown run by freshman Brandon Hlavach which brought back memories of Shepherd’s first score against LIU-Post just a week earlier. A ten-point deficit seemed manageable. If Shepherd’s defense could hold, the offense could get them right back in the game.

Near midfield, Cal’s quarterback fumbled the ball during a blind side sack. The Rams recovered. A 33-yard drive put the Rams in position to attempt a 21-yard field goal. The field goal was missed wide. On the one hand, not capitalizing on opportunities that present themselves are the storylines that follow a loss. On the other hand, the defense was here to play and the offense was beginning to move the ball against the Vulcan’s defense.

Shepherd and California would trade punts back and forth on the next four possessions. Mid-way through the 2nd quarter, Cal’s quarterback fumbled the ball a second time during another blind side hit. This time Shepherd was able to pick up the loose ball and take it to the house for the touchdown. At this point, only trailing 14-17, the game definitely had a different feel to it. Shepherd’s defense was limiting Cal’s offense and applying pressure on their quarterback.

Again, Cal’s offense stalled and they punted yet again. Field position was in Cal’s favor during most of the first half; and this latest punt pinned Shepherd at their own six-yard line. The Rams showed their fight with a 10-play, 94-yard drive that ate up most of the remaining time in the second half. Billy Brown showcased his abilities on a 27-yard touchdown where he shed several tackles fighting, and was practically thrown into the end zone by a defense that seemed tired of trying to tackle him. Shepherd had its first lead of the game with :40 to play in the first half.

The Vulcans only needed :13 seconds to complete two passes for 70 yards and a score to re-take the lead. The second pass was a 40-yard touchdown completion to Garry Brown over the middle where he ran untouched into the end zone. The half ended with Cal leading 24-21 which felt like a tied ballgame with a critical second-half performance upcoming.

Cal deferred after winning the coin toss in order to receive the ball after halftime. I like when teams defer because it gives them a chance to catch back up or pull away depending upon the score at halftime. The Vulcans took advantage by opening the 2nd half with a scoring drive, culminating in Garry Brown’s third touchdown of the game. While the extra point attempt was blocked, the Vulcans had a 9-point, two-possession lead while eating away 1/3 of the 3rd quarter. Little did the Vulcans know at the time, that would be their final points of the game.

Shepherd would go on to score 20 unanswered points—three touchdowns with their own blocked PAT. Billy Brown caught his second touchdown pass near the end of the 3rd quarter on a short, inside slant route. CJ Davis caught a short touchdown pass early in the 4th quarter to help put the Rams back on top, and perhaps most impressive was the Rams’ final drive of the game. A 15-play, 83-yard drive that chewed through 6:28 of the final 7:32 left in the game. The drive featured a steady diet of the dynamic rushing duo, running back Brandon Hlavach and quarterback Jeff Ziemba. Ziemba left after taking a hit near the pylon. Backup quarterback Connor Jessop came in to score on a quarterback sneak on 4th and goal from inside the 1-yard line. That one drive may have been the best effort by Shepherd’s offensive line.

When Shepherd trailed early, they had the advantage of time. Cal didn’t have that luxury when they found themselves down 11 points with 1:14 remaining in the game. Myles Humphery sealed the deal with one last sack on Cal’s quarterback.

Stat Lines

SU – Jeff Ziemba (14-26-200-3-1), sacked 3 times
CU – Michael Keir (21-41-269-2-0), sacked 5 times

SU – Brandon Hlavach (24-159-1)
CU – Nick Grissom (16-48-0)

SU – Billy Brown (9-172-2)
CU – Garry Brown (10-127-2), 53-yard punt return touchdown

SU – Octavius Thomas, 15 total tackles. “Nobody’s getting past him today.” – Cal staff
SU – Myles Humphrey, 2 sacks (the second one ending the game), 1 forced fumble (returned for a TD), 1 fumble recovery
SU – Bruno Anyangwe, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery (returned for a TD)
SU – Jampes Gupton, 8 total tackles
SU – Chris Jones, 8 total tackles, 3 passes broken up
SU – Tre Sullivan, 6 total tackles, 1 blocked kick, 1 non-targeting Targeting call

Game Notes

Prior to giving up 41 points to Shepherd, the most points scored against the Vulcans—ranked 4th in the nation giving up 14.5 points per game—was 28 (IUP during the regular season). The Rams limited Cal, Division-II’s Scoring Offense leader (51.4) to 23 points on offense, 7 of those set up by an interception returned to the 3-yard line.

Freshman running back Brandon Hlavach (24-159-1) was the first to rush for over 100 yards against the Vulcans this season. For the second week in a row, the Rams had over 200 yards rushing as a team. Cal’s defense gave up less than 100 rushing yards per game entering the contest against Shepherd.

Both Billy Brown (9-172-2) and Garry Brown (10-127-2) are as good as advertised. Shepherd’s Billy Brown faced coverage from a corner who rivaled his size. Coverage was tight and defended a number of passes. The Rams began running more slants to get the ball into his hands allowing his physicality to take over. The Vulcan’s Garry Brown found himself in softer coverage against the Rams secondary. He had little trouble making catches, but Shepherd limited his impact by making quick tackles most of the time. Those in the know advertised Garry’s ability to make plays on special teams as well, and he added another touchdown in the game on a punt return.

Shepherd’s additional weapons in the passing game were limited throughout the game, but their contributions were significant. Tight End Jamie Deason caught a crucial third down pass to extend the Rams’ drive that resulted in their first touchdown. One of CJ Davis’ two catches was for a crucial go-ahead touchdown in the 4th quarter.

Cal stacked the box early and often. I kept waiting for more passes to running backs in the flat, or screen passes and didn’t really see either. I thought those would be effective ways to keep the defense honest, but clearly the Rams didn’t need those plays.

For the second week in a row the losing team had a 17-0 lead. IUP had a 17-0 lead over Cal which excited everyone on Long Island because if the Crimson Hawks went on to win that game, the winner of the Shepherd—LIU-Post game would host the Super Region 1 champship.

The Rams secondary played softer coverage than I anticipated against Cal’s receivers. Aside from Garry Brown’s 40-yard touchdown pass near the end of the 2nd half, the Rams defense made the tackles to keep things manageable. The defense shut down the Vulcans running game. Octavius Thomas’ 9-solo, 15-total tackles impressed many of the home staff at Adamson Stadium. Not only did the defense pressure Cal quarterback Michael Keir, two of the five sacks were crucial blind side shots that forced fumbles.

In the preview, I said the teams needed to limit their mistakes—penalties and turnovers. Shepherd had 8 accepted penalties for 85 yards, which is pretty successful in that department. But an interception and punt return for a touchdown helped dig a pretty deep hole for the Rams. These mistakes are often a death sentence for a team’s post-season efforts, but …

… the Rams proved why they are worthy of the highest praise in Division II football. Outscoring your opponent 41-13 after being in a 0-17 deficit is a sign of a champion. Executing a 15-play, six-and-a-half-minute drive running at will against a team with a strong rush defense to seal a victory is a sign of a champion. Several weeks ago I truly was prepared to predict California (PA) to beat Shepherd, but throughout the playoffs I began to see that this year’s team is a very special program capable of going all the way. These Rams are clearly scrappy and able to fight ‘til the bitter end.

My email is working smoothly now, so feel free to send any questions, comments, concerns, insights, etc. to me at Raymond.franze@d2football.com

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  1. Joe Price's Avatar
    Nice right up Raymond. Good stuff!