Raymond Franze

MEC's Season Concludes as Shepherd's Season Ends

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North Alabama 23
Shepherd 13

Game Recap

The Mountain East Conference’s season came to its conclusion as Shepherd lost at home to North Alabama in the semi-final round of the playoffs. Although the Rams opened the game with a touchdown, they found themselves down by 10 points in the bottom half of the second quarter—a deficit that would prove to be too much to overcome.

North Alabama won the coin toss and deferred to receive the football after halftime. Shepherd received the opening kickoff and proceeded to use over half of the first quarter to march 79 yards on 14 plays to open the scoring with a 9-yard touchdown pass from Jeff Zeimba to Ryan Feiss. The drive featured a steady diet of running back Brandon Hlavach who carried the ball 10 times for 42 yards and a key third-down catch for 10 yards. The Lions helped extend the drive with an untimely roughing-the-passer penalty on third-and-six play where the Lions’ secondary tipped away a pass intended for CJ Davis.

North Alabama’s Rushing Defense ranked 47th in the nation, giving up almost 130 yards-per-game entering the semi-final contest, so it wasn’t surprising the Rams could move the ball against that defense. After all, Shepherd rushed for 200 yards in each of their past two playoff games—the latest being against a PSAC champion who gave up less-than 100 yards-per-game on the ground.

Ziemba attempted four passes on the opening drive—a pass in the flat out to Hlavach, two incompletions (the first negated by a penalty) and the touchdown pass to Feiss. There wasn’t enough work in that opening series to gauge how they would fare against the team with the best Passing Efficiency-Defense in the country.

The Lions punted on their first series, but not before moving into Ram territory. Shepherd sacked Tucker on the third play of the series; and continued to show their ability to put pressure on the quarterback in the backfield. Tucker demonstrated his ability to escape from pressure and use his speed to pick up first downs with his legs. On 3rd-and-18 he scrambled for 16 yards to bring up a manageable fourth down, which he converted with an 8-yard run although it was negated by a Holding penalty.

The Rams narrowly escaped a safety after being pinned inside their own 2-yard line, but forward progress was just beyond the goal line. Shepherd punted on each of its next four possessions—two of which were very uncharacteristic shanks which set the Lions up with very good field position. North Alabama scored 17 points in between those punts starting with a 36-yard field goal, followed by a 34-yard touchdown pass to Dre Hall and a 5-yard touchdown run by Tucker.

The two traded field goals before the half; and the score at the midpoint was 20-10. The Rams struggled to move the ball offensively—particularly in the air—against North Alabama’s defense; and there was a sense the 10-point deficit would be much harder to make up than the 17-point deficit they suffered just a week prior. But again, as any team reaches the semi-finals and beyond, they are truly playing among the best programs in the country.

The second-half was more of the same. Field goals for each team were the only points scored in the second half. The Rams continued to sack Tucker and they forced and recovered a second fumble. They also watched Tucker stand in the pocket for a while connecting with receivers who seemed to shed the first tackles—and they watched him escape pressure time and again. In the end, the Lions’ game plan on defense and execution on offense proved to be too much to overcome.

A disappointing finish for the team and its fans, but Shepherd had a very successful season.

Game Notes

The Rams’ family challenged itself to get 7,000+ in the stadium for the game. According to the box score, the campaign was successful with a reported attendance of 7,017—and that doesn’t count those along the wall and the tailgate yard which are technically outside the stadium (unless someone hand counted them to get over the 7k mark).

The passing game was certainly off against North Alabama. Billy Brown was limited to two catches for 17 yards, CJ Davis had 3 catches for 43 yards and Ryan Feiss’ 9-yard touchdown catch was his only catch in the game. A couple of passes were thrown behind players, but a lot of the passing lanes were taken away. According to Bobby Wallace, head coach of North Alabama, they double-teamed Brown throughout the entire game always having a safety over the top just for him; and they assigned their best cover corner to shadow CJ Davis.

After the first drive, North Alabama did a very good job limiting Shepherd’s rushing attack. Hlavach had 10 carries for 42 yards on the opening drive; and 14 carries for 53 yards throughout the rest of the game. Lions head coach Wallace attributed the opening drive to his players adjusting to Shepherd’s speed and the getting familiar with how the Rams executed their plays.

There is plenty of photographic evidence to show the abundance of illegal holds executed by North Alabama’s front five; and the head ref showed reluctance to toss his flag. But the old adage is a team needs to be good enough to negate the officials’ influence on the outcome of the game. In fairness to the Lions, the Rams got away with a few of their own. One that comes to mind is the pass caught in the back of the end zone by North Alabama that was ruled out-of-bounds—I was quite surprised a flag wasn’t thrown for defensive pass interference on the coverage.

And there’s no denying Jacob Tucker’s ability to escape pressure and use his speed to pick up yardage with his legs. Here are a few of his key runs in the game:
1st quarter, 3rd-and-18, rushes for 16 yards
1st quarter, 4th-and-2, rushes for 8 yards (negated by penalty)
2nd quarter, 3rd-and-15, rushes for 28 yards
2nd quarter, 3rd-and-10, rushes for 19 yards
3rd quarter, 3rd-and-5, rushes for 10 yards
4th quarter, 3rd-and-10, rushes for 24 yards

Illegible Man Downfield. Shepherd is notorious for drawing flags; they had more penalties and penalty yards than any other team in the country. But this one particular issue was a problem throughout the game, with the worst negating a 59-yard reception by CJ Davis. Coach Cater said there was one, maybe two that he felt were legitimate calls, but a few others that were borderline calls at best.

Positive Takeaways

The Rams are certainly disappointed in the outcome of the game, and they truly believe they had the ability to compete with, and beat, North Alabama. The concept of moral victories may not be appreciated if it seems to insinuate one team was playing out of their league. There are several positive takeaways worth noting to help illustrate the difficulty Shepherd proved to be for North Alabama.

North Alabama averaged scoring over 40 points per game. Shepherd limited the Lions to 23 points—just 3 points in the second half. Twenty-three points is the lowest number of points scored against a Division II opponent for the Lions (the 12-31 loss to Jacksonville State notwithstanding). Their next lowest amount of points was 38 against North Greenville in the Super Region 2 final.

North Alabama averaged giving up 2.36 sacks per game. Shepherd sacked quarterback Jacob Tucker six times and pressured him countless others. Six is the second-most amount of sacks against North Alabama. West Georgia got to Tucker seven times. A couple of schools sacked him five times, others much less.

Shepherd’s 8 pass Breakups were the most against the Lions’ passing offense in a single game this season. Tucker’s passing yardage was among his lowest during the season, and that meant he had to rely on his legs more to make things happen.

Two turnovers by North Alabama’s offense kept Shepherd in the game, but they weren’t muffed punts or passes that went off the hands of their receivers. Shepherd’s defense forced both fumbles

Bottom Line

Only two teams can compete in the national championship. Only one team in the country has the chance to go an entire season without tasting defeat. Shepherd’s trip to the semifinals is a remarkable achievement for the program. They continue to represent the Mountain East Conference and Super Region 1 well, and their recent success should pay dividends with future programs.

Feel free to send me complaints, insight, questions, etc at Raymond.franze@d2football.com.

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Updated 12-13-2016 at 12:02 AM by Raymond Franze