WEST LIBERTY - The West Liberty University football team is facing a ''big'' challenge today when Southern Connecticut State makes its first visit to Russek Field for the Hilltoppers' home opener.
Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. on ''Black-Out'' Day at West Liberty. All fans are encouraged to wear black in support of the Black and Gold with the first 500 ticket-holders through the gates receiving free ''Black-Out'' T-shirts.
''Southern Connecticut is probably the biggest football team we've played since I've been here,'' Hilltoppers coach Roger Waialae said. ''They have NFL size on both sides of the ball.''
The Owls' starting offensive line averaged 6-foot-4, 325 pounds from tackle-to-tackle in last week's season opener against NCAA Division I-AA (FCS) Central Connecticut State. Their defensive front three hit the charts at 6-3, 290 pounds while the four linebackers averaged 6-1, 230 pounds.
Southern Connecticut couldn't overcome a 28-0 halftime deficit in dropping a 35-21 decision last week but it was definitely a tale of two halves. After being shredded for 263 yards and 16 first downs in the first two quarters, the SCSU defense held Central Connecticut without a first down and gave up 8 yards of total offense during the final 30 minutes.
Veteran coach Rich Cavanaugh welcomed his top five receivers, his top running back and his preseason All-America quarterback back to the SCSU fold from last year's 6-4 squad - the 10th consecutive winning season at Southern Connecticut.
Quarterback Kevin Lynch completed 22 of 39 passes for 223 yards and a TD with two interceptions in last week's loss. Seven different players caught at least one pass with Andre Privott's six catches for 61 yards leading the way. Senior TB Rashaad Slowley, the Owls' leading rusher each of the past two seasons, was held to 50 yards on a career-high 27 carries but scored a pair of touchdowns against the rugged Central Connecticut State defense.
Those are all familiar names to the Hilltoppers coaching staff as Privott and fellow WR Willie Epps each topped the 100-yard receiving mark in last year's 49-35 loss to West Liberty, while Lynch completed a school-record 30 of 46 passes for 386 yards and three TDs.
''They threw the ball pretty effectively against us last year,'' Waialae said. ''They're so big and physical up front that you have to play the run first and then they try to catch you with a play-action and go deep. They don't try to nickel-and-dime you with their passing game. They go for big chunks.''
The Hilltoppers look to rebound from a disappointing 30-14 road loss to a veteran Edinboro (Pa.) squad last week. Although Waialae saw a number of things he liked after reviewing the game tapes, he summed things up pretty succinctly.
''Football is still a team game and Edinboro simply played better together as a team than we did last week,'' Waialae said. ''There were just too many times we didn't have everybody on the same page. You expect a certain amount of that with all the new faces and I think we learned a lot. We should be more comfortable out there (today).''
Senior tailback Brandon Davis rushed for 104 yards and two TDs in his Hilltoppers debut while junior QB L.D. Crow completed 22 of 37 passes but was held to 148 passing yards by a veteran Edinboro defense.
The West Liberty defense was hurt by a pair of 61-yard runs in the second half but acquitted itself quite well during the course of the game. The Hilltoppers held the Fighting Scots to 71 passing yards while more than half of Edinboro's 225 rushing yards came on the two long second-half runs.
''I'm not sure what we'll see from Southern Connecticut this week,'' Waialae said. ''Their No. 1 concern last year was taking away our passing game which opened up some things in the run game. I'm sure we'll see a little different look from them but we're really excited about playing in front of our home fans. I think our guys will rise to the challenge.''