Raymond Franze

Shepherd stunned by Findlay, MEC is knocked out in Round 1

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Image courtesy of the University of Findlay

Findlay 29
Shepherd 17

In three of the four Super Regions, the #7 seed returned home as victors following an on-the-road upset. Super Region 1 was one of those three regions; in this one the University of Findlay Oilers defeated the Shepherd Rams 29-17 on a dreary Saturday afternoon in Shepherdstown, WV.

The Oilers made it known that their position as a top-12 offense in Division II based on their rankings among seven statistical categories is not necessarily due to membership in a perceived-weak conference, but because they are actually good.

For a team that statistically seemed to pass the ball enough to keep teams honest and effectively to keep the chains moving, but doing the most damage on the ground—Findlay came out throwing the ball. Two-thirds of their plays in the first quarter were pass plays and over 75% of their yards came through the air.

Both quarterbacks had over 100 passing yards after the first quarter. Shepherd receivers had several key drops early in the game, but made the catches when they needed to. Ryan Feiss (8-81-1) was the exception as he appeared very sure-handed throughout the game. Connor Jessop (18-37-248-2-2) had two touchdown completions in the opening quarter, one to Feiss and the other to Wanya Allen.

In the second quarter the rushing attack took over. Daouda Sylla’s (33-205-1) average jumped from 4.0 yards per carry to 6.4 as he averaged nearly 8.0 yards per carry during the second quarter when he rushed 11 times for 85 yards. Conversely, quarterback Rhys Gervais (21-41-294-1-1) was 3-of-15 for 26 yards in the second quarter.

Image courtesy of the University of Findlay

While Shepherd had a 17-9 lead at halftime and a slight edge in passing yards, Findlay executed 52 plays against Shepherd’s 28, accumulated 285 yards opposed to Shepherd’s 197, had more balance, and possessed the ball almost two-thirds of the first half. The Rams’ rushing defense--ranked 9th in Division II entering the game allowing an average of 86.2 rushing yards per game—gave up 140 rushing yards to Findlay in the first half alone.

Despite a 17-9 deficit going into halftime, Coach Keys said he, “Felt okay, even good despite being down eight [points]. We moved the ball very well—we were horrible in the red zone.” Findlay was actually 3-3 in the red zone in the first half, but they had two critical holding penalties that negated touchdowns; and they traded field goals for Shepherd Ram touchdowns once the scoring drives commenced. Coach Keys realized though, they were playing well enough against Shepherd that they weren’t far away from being the team to carry the lead into halftime.

Image courtesy of the University of Findlay

Findlay’s version of Billy Brown came alive in the third-quarter when Gervais kept feeding the ball to the Oiler’s 6’5” #81, Andrew Ogletree (6-81-0), who had six catches for 81 yards. Finishing off the work done by Gervais and Ogltree in the third quarter was running backs Sylla and Michael Campbell (20-93-1) who each had a rushing touchdown.

Imgage courtesy of the University of Findlay

After three quarters Findlay had a 23-17 lead they would not relinquish. Shepherd was poised to re-take the lead with 1st and goal inside the 10 yard line, but Jessop threw an interception on an inside slant route at the goal line. Not a fluke, DB Chiebuka Chukwuneke explained after the game they knew from studying game film that Shepherd didn’t throw many fade routes. He said he saw Jessop signal the receiver prior to the snap and he anticipated the slant route that developed and he was able to get position. Jessop threw a second untimely interception where he appeared to overthrow his receiver.

Jessop, a Harlon Hill candidate, did not throw many interceptions over the course of the regular season. When he did though, they usually came in pairs—the difference then was Shepherd’s offense and defense were superior to the competition and could overcome those mistakes. Not so against Findlay.

In the final quarter, Sylla rushed for 8.0 yards per carry. He had 9 carries for 72 yards in the final quarter. The final nail in the coffin was a 52-yard touchdown pass from Gervais to Airion Kosak about midway through the final quarter.

Shepherd is consistently one of the most penalized teams in the nation; and there’s always concern that may be their downfall in the post-season when there isn’t much margin for error. The Rams were relatively well-behaved—five penalties for 66 yards. They were simply outplayed by a very good football team.

Key stats that highlight the final outcome:

Second-half score: Findlay 20-0
Total Plays: Findlay, 98-52
Total Yardage: Findlay, 571-304
Rushing Yardage: Findlay, 277-56
First Downs: 34-16
Time of Possession: Findlay, 41:11-18:49

Findlay only punted the ball once, and they converted 60% of their third downs into first downs. At one point in the second half, Coach Keys had the Oilers go for it on fourth-and-one at their own 31-yard line. At this point Findlay held a 23-17 lead—a point where most coaches would probably punt the ball. Coach Keys said after the game that the mentality he passed on to his team was, “[W]e’re going there to win!” And their ability to run the ball against Shepherd all day long gave him confidence they would convert—and they did.

In what has to be described as one of the greatest games of keep-away in a playoff game, Shepherd only had three possessions in the second half. And two of those resulted in turnovers. Findlay came into the game after a bad loss to GMAC champion Ohio Dominican (who many on the board believed should have been in the playoffs over the Oilers). Coach Keys said that game provided a lot of benefit for the Oilers heading into the playoffs. That loss taught them to not hang their heads down when they get behind, stay focused and fight it out until the very end.

I was more concerned about Shepherd’s run game entering the playoffs last year, but the offensive line and freshman running back Brandon Hlavach gelled perfectly in the playoffs. Lolley (8-14-0)--whose last post-season game prior to this was played in Kansas City, KS--was running hard along with Griffin. Being held to less than 60 total rushing yards was probably a surprise to many.

Even for Shepherd, surviving the first round of the playoffs in Super Region 1 is no easy feat. While the conference realignment brought the GMAC into Super Region 1, that conference is mostly comprised of former GLIAC members—Findlay, Ohio Dominican and Hillsdale being the top contenders. In addition to battling each other, these teams are used to competing against other top programs like Grand Valley State (who Shepherd met in the 2015 semi-final game), Ferris State and Ashland on a yearly basis. Ferris State and Ashland both advanced to the second round in Super Region 3 this year (Ashland defeated Northwest Missouri St.). And rumors are circulating that Ashland may be joining the GMAC.

A testament to what Coach Cater has built at Ram Stadium, losing in the opening round of the playoffs is an early end to the season for Shepherd. For the first time in three years they will not be playing as the Super Region 1 champs in the national semi-final game. It’s a tough loss for Shepherd who saw the emergence of new receivers, Jessop compile over 40 all-purpose touchdowns and Myles Humphrey establish himself as the school’s new all-time sack leader.

With the loss though, the Mountain East Conference is officially done with playing football in 2017. Fairmont State and Notre Dame College continued to round-out the top three in the conference. UVA-Wise followed up its breakout season in 2016 with another year around .500 while WV State amassed its first winning season in what feels like forever. It’s that time of year to discuss what holes will be left to fill, what facility improvements are happening, and what vertical movement we might anticipate in the standings next season.

Questions or comments about what you read above? Leave a comment below, send me a message via the boards or email me.
Questions or insight about MEC football programs? Send me a message via the boards or email at ... raymond.franze@d2football.com

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Updated 11-24-2017 at 05:19 PM by Raymond Franze