SHEPHERDSTOWN - Defending West Virginia Conference champion Shepherd had to play keep-away and take-away to turn away an upset-minded West Liberty team on a wild Saturday afternoon at Ram Stadium.
The Ram defense returned two interceptions for touchdowns, blocked three PATs and added a safety while the Shepherd offense held the ball for nearly 23 of the 30 minutes in the second half to pull away to a 50-24 victory.
West Liberty (1-6, 1-4 WVC) came out with all guns blazing as L.D. Crow fired an 80-yard touchdown strike to Brandon Carver on the game's first snap from scrimmage.
Shepherd (5-2, 3-2) took a 7-6 on Elijah Davis's 35-yard interception return but Hilltoppers cornerback Carl Hayles gave the WLU offense a short field when he picked off a Bobby Cooper pass at the Ram 14.
Crow capped a short drive with a 1-yard quarterback sneak and the surprising Hilltoppers took a 12-7 lead into the second quarter.
Eric Dobratz put the hosts back on top, 15-12, midway through the period when he wrapped a pair of field goals around a safety but the West Liberty defense wasn't finished yet.
Sophomore standout Alec Wood darted into the backfield on a safety blitz to jar the ball away from Cooper on a blind-side hit and defensive tackle Nick Augustyn recovered in the end zone for an 18-15 Hilltoppers lead.
Shepherd took the ensuing kickoff and drove 57 yards for the go-ahead score with workhorse tailback Kenny Williams slamming in from 3 yards out to put the hosts up, 22-18, at intermission.
The Rams turned momentum in their favor in the second half by focusing almost exclusively on the running game.
Shepherd took the second-half kickoff and marched 68 yards on 10 plays for a 29-18 lead.
Justin Black gave Hilltoppers fans a thrill on the ensuing kickoff when he burst through a seam and sprinted up the right sideline for a 90-yard touchdown return, cutting the lead to 29-24 but sending the WLU defense right back on the field.
The Rams ground out another 10-play march that chewed nearly six more minutes off the clock and pushed the count to 36-24 heading into the fourth quarter.
The Hilltoppers had one more chance to swing momentum when Griffin Yocum's 61-yard punt was downed inside the Shepherd 10 early in the fourth quarter but the hosts were able to put the game away with a 12-play, 92-yard drive that used up nearly half the time in the fourth quarter.
Nik Norrell caught a 12-yard TD pass from Cooper with 6:13 remaining and defensive back Corey Washington wrapped up the scoring with a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown on West Liberty's next possession.
Williams led Shepherd with 155 rushing yards and 3 TDs on 23 carries. Cooper completed 15 of 21 passes for 121 yards.
Crow completed 15 of 28 passes for 204 yards with Carver showing two catches for a career-high 110 receiving yards.
The Hilltoppers remain on the road next week with a Saturday afternoon game at the University of Charleston. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at Laidley Field.