WEST LIBERTY - No. 15 Shepherd scored 25 points on defense and special teams during a 3-minute span of the second half Saturday to overcome a 3-touchdown deficit and stun West Liberty, 53-38, on a bizarre afternoon at Russek Field.
Hilltoppers quarterback Zach Amedro set an NCAA Division II record with his 27th career 300-yard passing game, completing 44 of 63 passes - both school records - for 487 yards and 4 touchdowns while TE Ryan Travis set a West Liberty career record with his 28th touchdown catch, but those accomplishments were virtually overshadowed by the shocking turn of events in the second half.
After dominating the first two quarters, West Liberty (4-3 overall, 3-2 WVC) had pushed the lead to 35-13 early in the third quarter when Travis caught his third TD pass of the day - a 24-yarder - from Amedro. The Rams (8-0, 6-0) answered with a 15-yard scoring toss from Kevin Clancy to Dom Jones, but the hosts still seemed to have things well in hand, carrying a 35-20 advantage into the final minute of the third quarter.
That's when the wheels inexplicably came off the Hilltoppers' upset wagon.
It all started when Shepherd's Deante Steele pulled in a short punt at the Rams 48, picked up a wall of blockers and sprinted 52 yards to paydirt with 52 seconds remaining on the third quarter clock. That was the NCAA record 12th kick return score (8 punts, 4 kickoffs) of Steele's career and it was most definitely a mistake.
Two snaps later, Shepherd's Keon Robinson made a leaping interception of an Amedro bomb at the Rams 12 and weaved his way through the entire West Liberty team for an 88-yard touchdown return with just 3 seconds left in the third quarter. Clancy flipped a 2-point conversion pass out to fullback Bobby Humphries, who was dragged down inside the 2 but lunged forward for the 2-pointer that tied the game at 35.
Things went from bad to worse when DeVaughn Gordon coughed up a fumble and Shepherd recovered at the WLU 14 on the last play of the third quarter.
The Hilltoppers defense held the Rams to a 24-yard Eric Dobratz field goal which put the visitors on top, 38-35, with 13:02 remaining, but there was one more scene to play out in the horror show.
That came on the first snap following the kickoff when West Liberty's Brandon Carver fumbled after catching a short pass and Shepherd's Corey Washington scooped up the loose ball and ran it in for the score from 27 yards out.
Washington's score ended a blitz that saw the Rams turn a 35-20 deficit into a 45-35 lead while running just three offensive plays for a total of 7 yards in a span of just 3:07.
"We just self-destructed," Waialae said. "We built that big lead by playing error-free football, but we let special teams become a factor and then the fumbles caught up with us at the end. You can't make mistakes like that against a good football team and Shepherd's a very good football team."
The Hilltoppers didn't go down without a fight. Following Washington's fumble return, West Liberty drove the length of the field before settling for a 27-yard Mike Blewett field goal to make it a one-score game, 45-38, with 9:36 to play.
The WLU defense forced a 3-and-out, but the Hilltopper offense couldn't sustain a drive and punted back to Shepherd with 3:33 to go. The Rams ground out a pair of first downs to run the game clock under a minute before Tommy Addison broke loose on a 44-yard touchdown run to seal the game.
West Liberty's David Carter led all receivers with 13 catches for 167 yards while Travis finished with 12 catches for 122 yards. Senior TB Kevon Calhoun had 18 carries for 83 yards and caught 9 passes for 76 more as the Hilltoppers racked up 35 first downs and 621 yards of total offense in a losing cause.
Clancy completed 15 of 30 passes for 247 yards and 2 TDs for a Ram team that managed just 15 first downs and 363 yards of total offense but found a way to remain unbeaten.
"Consistency has been an issue for us all season," Waialae said, "but we have to put this behind us and regroup. We'll come in tomorrow and start getting ready for Charleston. That will be the last home game for 23 seniors who have won a lot of football games for us. We'll want to send them out on a winning note."
Kickoff for Saturday's game against the Golden Eagles is set for 1 p.m. at Russek Field.