WEST LIBERTY - Isiah Moody ran for a career-high 129 yards 84 of them in the fourth quarter while Justin Black had a 75-yard interception return for a touchdown and Jesse Rose caught a 4-yard TD pass from L.D. Crow with less than seven minutes remaining to lift West Liberty to a 23-22 victory against UNC-Pembroke at Russek Field on Saturday.
The Hilltoppers (6-5) wrapped up their seventh winning season in eight years under head coach Roger Waialae and knocked the visiting Braves (6-4), ranked No. 8 in Super Region 2, out of the NCAA Division II playoff chase in the process.
Waialae credited his 16 seniors for their determination to end the final chapter of their West Liberty careers with an exclamation point instead of a period.
"They stepped up," Waialae said. "It really meant something to our seniors to go from one win a year ago to six wins this season. They helped get this program moving in the right direction and I'm extremely happy for them.
"You can replace talent through your recruiting but leadership is something that has to develop. I hope some of our returning kids learn from their example and grow into the type of leaders we'll need going forward into next year."
The Hilltoppers used big plays in all three phases of the game to secure the upset.
Black's interception return in the final minute of the first half West Liberty's sixth interception return TD of the season - turned a 12-3 deficit into a much more manageable 12-10 count and sent the Hilltoppers into the second half with a little momentum.
West Liberty's special teams came up big after UNC-Pembroke had taken a 22-10 lead on an 85-yard bomb from quarterback Luke Charles to speedy wideout Te'vell Williams with just over five minutes left in the third quarter.
The Hilltoppers were forced to punt on the ensuing possession but the Braves' return man bobbled the kick and WLU's Marquis Bradley came out of the pile with the football at the UNC-Pembroke 4-yard line. Moody scored on the next play, cutting the deficit to 22-17 heading into the fourth quarter.
The biggest play on offense came late in the fourth quarter as West Liberty was trying to protect its one-point lead.
Junior safety Marco Ricchetti had snuffed out a potential go-ahead drive for the Braves by picking off a Charles pass in the end zone with 3:45 remaining and that's when Moody stepped into the spotlight
Facing third-and-seven from the 23, Moody took a sprint draw handoff from Crow and found daylight down the left sideline for a 52-yard run West Liberty's longest run from scrimmage all season.
Pembroke never got the ball back as the Hilltoppers were able to run out the clock.
"We had run that play twice earlier in the game but Isiah had missed the hole both times," Waialae said. "Pembroke was playing the run so aggressively that we thought we could catch them with the misdirection if we ran it again and this time he hit the hole."
Crow played most of the way at quarterback in his final game at West Liberty with freshman Dylan Lagarde coming in for a couple of series. They combined to complete 16 of 28 passes for 121 yards and a touchdown with senior WR Brandon Schroeder's 9 catches for 82 yards accounting for the bulk of that yardage.
Charles completed 19 of 35 passes for 281 yards and two TDs for UNC-Pembroke while Williams had a big day with seven catches for 162 yards and 2 scores.
Tailback Elliott Powell ran for 97 yards on 23 carries.
The Braves finished with 358 yards of total offense to just 212 for the Hilltoppers but turnovers were the difference in the game as West Liberty didn't turn the ball over once all day and scored 14 points off Pembroke's three turnovers.
"This was a big win for the seniors to go out on," Waialae said, "but it's also a big win for the ones who are coming back. We were the only conference team to beat Shepherd this year and they're probably going to be in the playoffs next week and this team we beat today had a shot at getting into the playoffs.
"Now our returning players know that they're capable of beating anybody they play and they can get excited about putting in the off-season work in the classroom as well as the weight room that you have to have in order to be successful. It gives us a great head start on next season."