Raymond Franze

North Alabama @ Shepherd -- Only one plays next week, and it's decided now!

Rate this Entry
North Alabama Lions @ Shepherd Rams

Ram Stadium – Shepherdstown, WV

Weather Forecast

Cold and Breezy

Do you really need the hourly forecast? Fine, for the wise guys who said “Yes.”

12:00 PM
Partly Cloudy 33° 24° 0% 40% WNW 12 mph
1:00 PM
Partly Cloudy 34° 25° 0% 38% WNW 12 mph
2:00 PM
Partly Cloudy 34° 26° 0% 38% WNW 12 mph
3:00 PM
Mostly Sunny 34° 26° 0% 38% WNW 11 mph

Game Broadcasts

Audio – Talk Radio WRNR FM106.5, AM 740, www.talkradiowrnr.com

Video – ESPN 3, http://www.espn.com/watchespn/index/...wv-semifinal-1

The field of 170 NCAA Division II football teams is narrowed down to four. Two games decide who will meet in the national championship game in Kansas City, KS a week from Saturday.

Each team (or at least their vocal fans) has felt shafted by the playoff seedings at one point or another. The Ram family felt disrespected by the #3 seed in the Super Region 1 rankings, having to earn their way to the semi-finals on the road coming off an undefeated season on the back end of a trip to the national championship last year. Across the field are the Lions faithful who don’t care for the notion of one region’s #1 seed having to travel to another region’s #3 seed. This season the NCAA decided to “re-seed” for the semi-finals opposed to having pre-determined games between Super Regions that rotates each year. The belief is the NCAA wants to avoid having the two best teams meet in the semi-finals, instead saving that game for the grand finale.

At this point it doesn’t matter—the records don’t matter, the seedings don’t matter, previous year’s non-applicable accolades don’t apply. The players are in Shepherdstown, WV—and tomorrow’s winner advances to the final stage

The Prize

Earn a trip to Children’s Mercy Park, Kansas City, KS to play in the NCAA Division II National Championship against the winner of Harding vs. Northwest Missouri State.

Photo courtesy of John and Pam Boyle

The Road

The Shepherd Rams finished the regular season undefeated (10-0) and Mountain East Conference champions. It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing through the regular season for Shepherd; not too many games had a relaxing fourth quarter. The Rams’ #3 seed meant a lot of the work was going to have to be done on the road in the playoffs. Shepherd hosted Assumption College in the opening round, but traveled to LIU-Post where they completed a sweep of the NE-10’s playoff teams and finished the Super Region 1 play with a 0-17 come-from-behind victory over the California Vulcans in southwestern PA.

The University of North Alabama Lions finished the season with one loss (8-1), with their only loss coming in the first week of the season on the road against Division 1-FCS Jacksonville State. Aside from a close 24-23 win over West Georgia, the Lions roared their way through the Gulf South Conference. In 7-of-their-8 wins, North Alabama scored 38-or-more points, with most scores in the 40s. In those same seven games, their opponents only scored 20+ points once. The Lions did not get to play Florida Tech during the regular season due to Hurricane Matthew; and their 9-game regular season total required a waiver from the NCAA to compete in the playoffs since teams are required to have at least a 10-game schedule. In the playoffs, North Alabama dispatched UNC-Pembroke and North Greenville pretty easily, with the defense pitching a shutout in the latter during the Super Region 2 championship.

National Rankings:

North Alabama Lions Shepherd Rams
Stat Rank Stat Rank

Scoring Offense 40.3 T15 40.6 13th
Scoring Defense 13.4 2nd 18.6 16th

Rushing Offense 196.2 34th 146.0 96th
Rushing Defense 128.9 47th 87.1 8th

Passing Offense 246.2 65th 328.3 6th
Passing Defense 186.9 32nd 208.0 63rd
Passing Efficiency 154.7 21st 182.79 2nd
Passing Eff. – Def 91.1 1st 105.98 17th

Total Offense 442.4 39th 474.3 18th
Total Defense 315.8 21st 295.1 10th

3rd Down Conv. Off .423 48th .500 7th
3rd Down Conv. De .333 T35 .330 34th
First Downs Off 261 T33 293 16th
First Downs Def 192 33rd 234 T107

Red Zone Offense .818 T52 .800 T68
Red Zone Defense .786 T91 .718 40th

Sacks 20 T98 52 2nd
Sacks Allowed 26 38 150th
Tackles for Loss 69 101st 113 T1

Time of Possession 30:10 70th 30:54 50th
Turnover Margin +14 5th +6 T38
Penalties 73-732 69th 140-1450 170th

Kickoff Returns 24.71 11th 22.09 48th
Net Punting 34.16 66th 38.2 8th

Source: ncaa.org

Offensive Players to Watch

Name School Completions – Attempts - Yardage Percentage Touchdowns - INTs
Jeff Ziemba SU 240 – 357 – 3,515 67.23% 31 – 6
Jacob Tucker UNA 172 – 274 – 2,483 62.77% 20 – 10
Running Backs
Name School Carries – Yardage YPG YPC TDs
Brandon Hlavach SU 191 – 1,122 86.31 5.9 15
Deonte Glover SU 122 – 572 44.00 4.7 5
Jacob Tucker UNA 171 – 789 71.73 4.6 15
Damon Cox UNA 98 – 458 41.64 4.7 8
Wide Receivers
Name School Receptions - Yardage YPC TDs
Billy Brown SU 97 – 1,563 16.11 22
CJ Davis SU 66 – 1,192 18.06 9
Ryan Feiss SU 54 – 725 13.43 1
Dre Hall UNA 68 – 1,020 15.00 8
Julius Jones UNA 42 – 649 15.45 7
Jacob Thomas UNA 17 – 288 16.94 2

Misc. Notes

Shepherd returns to, and hosts, the semi-final round of the playoffs for the second consecutive year. Their first trip came in 2010 when they flew to Mississippi to play Delta State University—the first and last time they played a team from the Gulf South Conference. Last year—on a much warmer day—the Rams hosted perennial powerhouse Grand Valley State University.

North Alabama is a three-time NCAA Division II national champion. The Lions strung together championships in three consecutive years from 1993-1995. While the current roster of Lions weren’t a part of the championship runs, they are part of a program that has a culture and tradition based upon winning national championships. Due to their level of play and looking for bigger opportunities, the school just announced they will soon be a Division I-FCS program.

The Gulf South Conference is full of fully-funded football programs; and it’s no stranger to playing meaningful games in December. That makes North Alabama’ s run during the regular season that much more impressive, and scary for Shepherd fans.

Size and ability of the opponent’s offensive line has once again entered the discussion. It was a significant talking point leading up to the game at LIU-Post, which should help alleviate some concerns about it. North Alabama’s front five will rank among the top of biggest lines faced by Shepherd’s defense. The capabilities of their team’s dual-threat quarterback, their ability to score a lot of points, and the fact that the team has advanced as far as the semi-final round speaks volumes about the quality of their work and it will likely be one of the toughest to control for the Rams.

Offensive Lines – Average height and weight of opponent’s starting offensive linemen.

North Alabama 6’ 2.8” 303.6 lbs 2016 Playoffs
LIU-Post 6’ 3.8” 304.6 lbs 2016 Playoffs
Assumption 6’ 2.2” 275.0 lbs 2016 Playoffs
Charleston 6’ 2.3” 288.0 lbs 2016 Regular Season
Fairmont State 6’ 3.2” 278.0 lbs 2016 Regular Season
West Liberty 6’ 2.8” 293.0 lbs 2016 Regular Season

Northwest MO State 6’ 3.2” 284.2 lbs 2015 Playoffs
Grand Valley State 6’ 4.6” 292.6 lbs 2015 Playoffs
Slippery Rock 6’ 4.0” 292.0 lbs 2015 Playoffs
IUP 6’ 3.4” 289.0 lbs 2015 Playoffs

West Chester 6’ 3.6” 299.0 lbs 2013 Playoffs
Winston-Salem State 6’ 3.0” 305.0 lbs* 2013 Playoffs

*Average due to Nathaniel Hartung’s weight reported as 380 lbs. If it’s correct, the line’s average was 317.5 lbs. If it’s a typo and he weighed 280 lbs, the average was 292.5 lbs.

Shepherd fans have a self-imposed challenge to get 7,000+ on the grounds of Ram Stadium. I would say, “in the stands,” but I don’t think you’re fitting 7,000 in the seats. Shepherd set a new record last year when they hosted Grand Valley with a record near 6,500 (in a stadium that officially holds 5,000). The sight was impressive as the side steps were lined from top to bottom with people standing, and the top deck was three-deep at the railing overlooking the field. And the official number didn’t count the countless others lined up at the wall, tailgating from the yard, and tailgating from the hill where the pavilion now stands. Amazingly, the Rams eclipsed that number during the regular season game against Fairmont State with conference championship implications on the line. One thing those two games didn’t have though, was the cold forecasted for this game. The windchill is likely to remain between the upper-20s and low-30s throughout the game. The cold will keep people away—and knowing ESPN will be providing coverage may help fans feel better about not making it to the stadium for the game. The crowd should still be the largest and loudest during any of Shepherd’s playoff games this season.

Keys to the Game

North Alabama’s rushing defense ranks 47th in the country. The Rams rushed for over 200 yards in each of their last two games; the most recent coming against Cal. who was supposed to have a stingy run defense that allowed less than 100 yards per game on the ground. Another big showing by freshman running back Brandon Hlavach with some quality runs by Deonte Glover will force the Lions to play the run and should open up the passing game.

Catching the ball. Shepherd’s receivers will have the opportunity to make plays. But how often do we see a receiver drop a reception because they’re either worried about a hit, or—more likely the culprit—begin looking downfield too soon as they think about their next move before completing that first crucial step? The competition is supposed to get tougher as the rounds go further into the playoffs. The margin for error becomes less and less; so fundamentally sound football is critical to maintaining possession and driving downfield.

Limiting the mistakes. It’s a deadhorse that lies on top of a broken record. It’s applicable to every game. At some point though, the opposition is going to be too good to give up a 17-0 lead. North Alabama ranks 5th in the country in turnover margin at +14. The majority of their turnovers are interceptions. Jeff Ziemba is one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country and should help limit the Lions’ chances for turnovers.

Make the Dean’s List for Discipline. Shepherd is ranked dead last in the nation in number of penalties accepted and penalty yards. Piggy-backing on the concept of limiting mistakes, at this level against this quality of a program, handcuffing your own drives and extending theirs is a recipe for ending the season one game too soon. Last week at Cal. the Rams cut down on the mental mistakes. Some calls were just poor calls (i.e. Targeting by Tre Sullivan which was overturned and he will play), most were typical in any game. North Alabama has approximately half the number of penalties for half the yards. The Lions will try to eat during the game, Shepherd can’t help set the buffet for them.

Make Lions quarterback Jacob Tucker one-dimensional. Tucker is the leading rusher for the Lions. He has 73 more carries than Damon Cox for 331 more yards. The Rams’ defense has done a phenomenal job getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks with just their front four. The Rams are known for their speed on defense. If they can maintain their gap assignments, keep the quarterback contained, that could severely limit North Alabama’s ability on offense. Shepherd has experience playing against dual-threat quarterbacks. Hopefully Notre Dame's Malik Grove and West Liberty's Dakota Conwell adequately prepared the Rams defense for what's to come.

Field Position—the Rams need to win the field position battle. They got off to a poor start last week, and relied on several long drives to get the job done. But this week field position becomes even more important because of North Alabama’s kicker, Kevin Henke. Henke has a long leg, and accurate leg. This season Henke has converted field goals from 40, 47. 47. 47. 49 and 50 yards. He has 37 touchbacks to Shepherd’s 7. Depending on the direction of the wind, Henke may be limited by the weather … but the Lions don’t need to drive too close to the end zone to get within Henke’s reach.

The number of people at this game coupled with its importance should make Ram Stadium one of the loudest places on Saturday. The crowd could have an impact by creating false starts and/or delays of game because North Alabama’s offense struggles to hear the snap count or changes in plays or assignments. Also, how is a Rams player not inspired to give it his all for the win when he looks up and sees the crowd doing the wave. Game day at Ram Stadium is a magical experience that will start early in the morning with tailgates and carry on through the game. It’s possible the crowd tips the scales in a tight one. That’s why it’s called, “home field advantage.”

The Result

In 2010, Shepherd was supposed to get blown away at Delta State, a fully-funded program with many D-1 transfers. Shepherd hung around in that game for a very long while. In 2015, on paper the Rams already lost to Grand Valley State. There was no way for a former WVIAC team to match the scholarship-laden talent of the 4-time champion Lakers. On the field, the game should have been lost when quarterback Jeff Ziemba left the game early with a shoulder injury. Between the running backs breaking long touchdown runs, backup quarterback Connor Jessop playing nearly flawless in relief, and the defense getting the job done, the Rams proved they were completely capable of competing against the best.

The Rams continue to defy the odds—and they’ve come a long way since that 2010 season. Players on NFL teams, hosting pro-days, players invited to the NFL Combine, a win in the semi-finals and playing in the biggest environment of D-2 football.

North Alabama may prove on Saturday why they belong at the next level competing against FCS teams on a weekly basis. But I’ve seen too much from the Rams in big games over the past two seasons to think they don’t have a strong chance of winning. And I’ve seen so much in one game last week about the fight and spirit of this particular group of players.

North Alabama makes Shepherd sweat hard on a frigid day. But this team has developed into something extra special over the past three weeks and has what it takes to continue the run once more to Kansas City (where interestingly enough, the players probably want another crack at NW MO St.)

Shepherd 35, North Alabama 34

Again, don't hesitate to send complaints, discussion topics, insight, etc to me at Raymond.franze@d2football.com

Submit "North Alabama @ Shepherd -- Only one plays next week, and it's decided now!" to Digg Submit "North Alabama @ Shepherd -- Only one plays next week, and it's decided now!" to del.icio.us Submit "North Alabama @ Shepherd -- Only one plays next week, and it's decided now!" to StumbleUpon Submit "North Alabama @ Shepherd -- Only one plays next week, and it's decided now!" to Google

Updated 12-10-2016 at 07:53 AM by Raymond Franze