WEST LIBERTY - The resurgent West Liberty University football team snapped No. 25 Shepherd's five-game winning streak Saturday, hanging on for a 17-16 victory before a Homecoming crowd at Russek Field.
Leading 17-10 at halftime, Coach Roger Waialae's Hilltoppers (4-3 overall, 3-2 WVC) had held the nationally ranked Rams (5-2, 4-1) at bay throughout the second half with a strong defensive effort but had to survive a wild finish.
Shepherd had taken over at the West Liberty 34 with 1:59 remaining following a short Hilltoppers punt. A 19-yard pass from Bobby Cooper to Larry Lowe gave the Rams a first down at the 15 but two incompletions and an intentional grounding flag left the visitors facing a fourth-and-23 from the 28.
With no timeouts remaining, Cooper lobbed a desperation pass into a crowd at the back of the end zone. The ball was batted away by a WLU defensive back but fell right into the hands of Shepherd's Billy Brown for a touchdown, igniting a wild celebration on the Rams' sideline.
That celebration proved short-lived, however, as Ryan Earls' PAT kick twisted wide left, preserving West Liberty's 17-16 lead with just 1:33 to play. The Hilltoppers' Marco Ricchetti recovered an onside kick and the WLU offense ran out the clock to a standing ovation.
"I'm very proud of every one of my players and coaches," Waialae said. "After what we went through last year and some of our struggles early this season, this shows our program is headed back in the right direction. We told the guys all week that it was going to be a war out there and every play would be a battle. We weren't perfect and we didn't win them all but we won enough battles to win the war and that's all I care about."
The West Liberty defense, which leads the nation in interceptions and turnovers, opened the scoring with one of the most exciting plays of the season before the game was three minutes old.
Ricchetti intercepted a Cooper pass at the Shepherd 48, reversed his field twice and picked up a wall of blockers down the right sideline. The Rams appeared to have him hemmed in inside the 10 but the junior safety lateraled the ball to a trailing Rod White at the 6 and the Hilltoppers cornerback dove into the end zone for the score.
"Marco's runback set the tone," Waialae said. "Shepherd has been one of the top teams in this league for a long time but that showed we weren't going to back down and be conservative. We were going to make things happen."
Earls and WLU's Jeff Hoak traded field goals later in the first quarter and the Hilltoppers took a 10-3 edge into the second quarter.
Shepherd's Mike Haynes knotted the count at 10-10 when he capped a 75-yard march with a 1-yard TD burst with 12:20 left in the half but it didn't take long for West Liberty to go ahead for good.
On the very next snap, freshman QB Dylan Lagarde hit Hakeem Cartwright in stride on a quick crossing pattern and the speedy senior gashed the Rams defense for 61 yards all the way to the Shepherd 19. After an incomplete pass, Kenjay Trueblood powered his way into the middle of the line, spun out of traffic and bounced off several would-be tacklers for a 19-yard touchdown run just 40 seconds after Haynes' score.
The West Liberty offense didn't put any more points on the board against the Rams' nationally ranked defensive unit but the Hilltoppers' own defense made those 17 points stand up.
"What a game from our defense," Waialae said. "(Defensive coordinator Jeff) Monteroso changed some things up and I think it really helped us. The same goes for the offense. (Shepherd) came in here with one of the best defenses I've seen in this conference. (Offensive coordinator Gary) Krol had some plays we hadn't shown all year and picked the perfect times to use them. Both coaches had great game plans and the players did a great job executing them."
Lagarde completed 18 of 35 passes for 242 yards while converted QB Ben Rogers had a 56-yard completion on a receiver pass. Tristen Devers led all receivers with 90 yards on five catches while Cartwright had 69 yards on two receptions and Dominic Cooper added 62 yards on three grabs.
Cooper completed 19 of- 31 passes for 200 yards but was picked off twice. Shepherd finished with 151 rushing yards but the Rams' three tailbacks were held to just 63 yards on 26 attempts.
"We're two plays away from being 6-1 right now," Waialae said, "but it doesn't do any good to look back. All we care about right now is that we have another very good football team in Charleston coming here next week."
The Hilltoppers play host to the Golden Eagles Saturday at 1 p.m.
Billy Castilow of Wheeling and Riley Lynn Bonar of Wheeling were crowned as West Liberty's 2012 Homecoming King and Queen during halftime ... This was the Hilltoppers' first victory against a Top 25 opponent since a 48-42 double-overtime win against No. 10 Charleston on Oct. 24, 2009. ... Trueblood's 19-yard touchdown run was the first rushing TD allowed by Shepherd in a WVIAC game this season. ... Charleston is also coming into next week's game off a win against a Top 25 foe. The Golden Eagles knocked off No. 24 UNC-Pembroke, 42-30, in North Carolina on Saturday.