Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

November 16, 2013

MEC championship game

By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

ATHENS — The de facto football championship game of the Mountain East Conference pits two of the top defenses in the nation today in Athens when the Shepherd Rams (9-0) invade the home field of Concord (8-2, 7-1 MEC) for a 1 p.m. kickoff.

“It’s finally here,” said Concord head coach Garin Justice. “Now, as a coach, it’s an easy week for me. You don’t have to motivate guys to practice hard, or really pay attention in meetings, or do what you’re supposed to do.

“This is the week where we can sit back and watch these guys play, because they’ve put themselves into the position to win it, and it’s time for them to do it.”

Concord could capture its second conference crown in three years by beating the Rams, since both teams would have one conference loss, but it won’t be easy.

Shepherd, with 12 wins in its last 13 games, is ranked seventh in all of NCAA Division II and first in the Super Region rankings, while Concord is ninth regionally.

The Rams are the top team in Division II in total defense, giving up 230.1 yards per game. Concord is third, allowing 255.4 yards per contest. The Rams and Mountain Lions are the top two teams nationally in fewest points and fewest first downs allowed per game.

Shepherd also leads the division in time of possession and in points per game, 39.1.

Justice said, “Playing Shepherd is kind of like looking in the mirror.”

“They’re going to play great defense like we do. They’re going to run the football like we do. They have a young quarterback like we do. Special teams ... we probably have better coverage units, we have better kickers and punters but they probably have better returners. So there’s a tradeoff in special teams.”

“Young quarterbacks, good running backs, wideouts that can hurt you, they are very, very similar teams. It’s really going to come down, I think, to taking care of the football and eliminating the explosive plays, or making the explosive plays. It should be a fun one.”

“The last time they came here we were able to beat them, but ... they’re undefeated in the regular season for a reason. We’ve got to be able to take care of the football, first and foremost, and also, we have to establish a ground game.”

Concord has averaged 33 points in its last four games, all of them victories.

“Our offense has grown up,” Justice said. “Our two losses, we turned the ball over a lot, but we’ve learned how to run the football effectively, which we’ve done a nice job of, play great defense, solid special teams and really just sound, fundamental football.”

“They’re a great defense. It’s going to be tough to have long, extended drives where we end up with a score.”

Calvinaugh Jones, the third-leading rusher in the Mountain East, ran for 104 yards for Concord last week and needs 42 yards to reach 1,000 for the season. Ben Nester averages 5.1 yards per carry and had three rushing touchdowns last Saturday.

Justice said, “I feel confident our defense will have a good game plan put together, to limit those guys to some points.”

Shepherd’s Allen Cross has averaged 101.6 yards per game this year and is 86 yards away from the 1,000-yard mark. Two passers, Jeff Ziemba and Trae Tinsman, have combined for 12 touchdown tosses, a completion percentage above 60 percent, and just three interceptions.

The last time the teams met in Athens, Concord won 28-14 en route to a national playoff berth. Last fall, Shepherd took a 20-6 win.

Justice said, “It seems like Shepherd has a voodoo, where they always get a pick-six or always going to get a punt return. We’ve got to not buy into that voodoo, of what they do. ... Then they get the momentum, and there they go.”

“We’ve got to be able to survive that assault, and then come back and finish the match.”

Justice said, “We’re going to get their best shot. It’s Concord-Shepherd. It’s been a great battle the last two or three years.”

About the championship implication, he said, “If we earn it, then we earn it. If we don’t, then we say, you know what, we gave it our best shot and we weren’t good enough this year. I want their best shot, and I’m expecting it.”

If CU wins, it will probably finish in the top six in its Super Region and would qualify for the NCAA postseason.

Concord athletics has asked its fans to wear maroon. Seniors will be honored prior to kickoff. At halftime, the Concord band will be joined by CU’s Collegiate Singers for a tribute to West Virginia’s 150th birthday.

Daily Telegraph sports writer Bob Redd contributed to this story.