WEST LIBERTY - The West Liberty University football team struck "gold" Saturday afternoon with a come-from-behind 28-20 victory against West Virginia State before a delighted Homecoming crowd at Russek Field.
Brandon Davis put the Hilltoppers ahead to stay with a 4-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter and Carl Hayles clinched it a few minutes later with a 92-yard touchdown return off a blocked field goal by Marco Ricchetti as West Liberty - sporting brand-new gold jerseys - notched its first win of the season.
"The guys have wanted to wear those jerseys all year but I wouldn't let them," head coach Roger Waialae said. "I made the decision on Friday because I thought we needed a spark but I didn't tell anybody. I had the managers put the gold jerseys in the lockers while the players were out for pre-game warmup. There was some pretty good emotion when they came back in and saw them hanging there."
The Hilltoppers (1-5 overall, 1-3 WVC) drew first blood when a short Yellowjackets (1-4, 1-2) punt rolled to a stop at the WLU 39. L.D. Crow capped a 9-play drive with a 1-yard quarterback sneak for a 7-0 lead at 5:36 of the first quarter.
State quarterback Ricky Phillips put the visitors on top, 13-7, with back-to-back touchdown passes early in the second quarter and was on the verge of taking that lead into the locker room when lightning struck from a clear blue sky.
Facing a 4th-and-10 from the Yellowjacket 44, Crow lobbed a "Hail Mary" into the end zone as time ran out in the first half.
Wide receiver Marvin Murray got a hand on the ball amidst a crowd of defenders, deflecting it to a hustling Hakeem Cartwright just inside the back line of the end zone for the score and a 14-13 West Liberty lead at the half.
Not many balls were bouncing the Hilltoppers' way during their season-opening 5-game losing streak but Waialae was quick to note that it wasn't the flashy new jerseys or a few lucky bounces that finally removed the zero from the WLU win column.
"This was a character win," Waialae said. "It's easy for an 0-5 team to divide and start pointing fingers when things don't go your way but our guys just seemed to draw closer and closer together. We had some adversity again but we stuck together and came through it as a team. I'm really happy to see them rewarded for that with a win."
State refused to fold, taking the second half kickoff and rolling 52 yards in 4 plays to re-take the lead on a 30-yard pass from Phillips to Ervin Kent.
Following a defensive stop, the visitors mounted another drive deep into West Liberty territory only to be turned away when Alec Wood came up with a diving interception in the end zone.
Cartwright - who has been limited by injury for much of the season - provided another spark late in the third quarter with a 25-yard punt return to the State 40.
"We have to use Hakeem in spots but you can see how dynamic he is," Waialae said. "When he's healthy, he can make things happen on a football field."
Crow completed 25 of 41 passes for 271 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Brandon Schroeder was the leading receiver with seven catches for 56 yards while Davis rushed for 80 yards on 15 carries.
Phillips completed 18 of 41 passes for 313 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. Landon Johnson led all receivers with four catches for 113 yards but tailback Fabian Payne, who was coming off back-to-back 100-yard rushing games, was held to just 33 yards on 14 carries.
"Every win is a big win," Waialae said, "because winning is an attitude. You have to learn how to win. You have to learn how to handle adversity. You have to learn how to make big plays under pressure. We showed today that when we do that, we can be a pretty good football team."