WEST LIBERTY - In order for the West Liberty University football team to take care of business on Saturday's trip to Virginia State, the Hilltoppers have to take better care of the football.
That's the message head coach Roger Waialae and his staff have been delivering at practice this week after watching their team cough up eight turnovers in a frustrating, 24-3, season-opening loss to Catawba (N.C.).
"The only points our defense allowed came on short fields after turnovers or sacks," Waialae said while putting the players through a brisk - and brusque - midweek session. "If we had just been able to punt the ball those eight times instead of turning it over, it would have been a different story. When you turn the ball over eight times, you're just not giving yourself a chance to win."
Kickoff for Saturday's non-conference game is set for 1:30 p.m. at 13,500-seat Rogers Stadium in Ettrick, Va.
The West Liberty defense held its North Carolina guests to just 14 first downs and 246 yards of total offense. Catawba's longest drive of the day covered just 41 yards while the Indians were forced into nine punts, lost three fumbles and surrendered five tackles for loss and a pair of quarterback sacks.
Turnovers weren't the only problem for the Hilltoppers offense. Although it showed flashes of big-play potential in the passing game, averaging more than 16 yards per completion while totaling 258 yards through the air, the three Hilltoppers signalcallers were sacked 11 times.
"Our offensive line had really been playing well in camp so it was really disappointing for me to see them come out and lay an egg like that," Waialae said. "It was an effort thing - as much mental effort as physical effort - and we addressed that."
West Liberty did get some good news on the medical front when starting QB L.D. Crow was cleared for action this week. Crow completed 8 of 12 passes for 90 yards against Catawba before leaving the game midway through the second quarter after taking a blow to the head. Starting WR Ben Rogers and backup TB Scott Victorio also left Saturday's game early and are "doubtful" for this weekend.
If misery loves company, the Hilltoppers should find a warm reception on Saturday as the Trojans endured their own offensive woes in a season-opening 24-0 loss to neighboring FCS power Norfolk State.
Virginia State was held to just 117 yards of total offense, got off just 53 snaps and were tackled behind the line of scrimmage 17 times. Included in those 17 tackles-for-loss were seven sacks. The Trojans also lost three fumbles and threw an interception while never crossing the Norfolk State 28.
Senior QB Jarred Battle is a three-year starter but saw limited action last week after taking a heavy hit on a first-quarter sack. Junior LaMonta Green completed 6 of 13 passes for 89 yards in relief.
Virginia State's veteran defensive unit held its own against the defending MEAC champions, as the Norfolk State offense was held to 340 yards and 17 points. The Spartans recovered a Battle fumble in the VSU end zone for the game's first touchdown.
"I'll take the kind of defensive effort we had against Catawba every week," Waialae said, "but this is a team game. We need a better performance from our offense and they realize that. Virginia State's a quality football team so this will be a good test for us."