The West Liberty University football team will try to get back on track this weekend when the Hilltoppers make their final road trip of the season. Coach Roger Waialae's squad makes the long trek south Saturday to take on UVA-Wise in a 1 p.m. kickoff at Carl Smith Stadium.
"We know we're a better football team than we've shown," Waialae said. "We see it in practice every week but it seems like every game we have a couple of three to four minute lulls where we just can't get anything done in any facet of the game. You have to play all 60 minutes to beat a good football team; 50 minutes isn't going to get it done. It's up to us as a staff to help our guys bring what we see during the week to the field on Saturday."
Both teams are coming off disappointing losses a week ago. The Hilltoppers (3-6, 3-4) battled Charleston to a virtual standstill during the first half only to see the Golden Eagles pull away to a 26-9 victory The Cavaliers (1-8, 1-7) were hammered, 44-6, by a regionally ranked Concord squad.
After getting off to a 2-1 start, West Liberty has dropped five of its last six games. While the defense has played well for the most part, the offense has struggled to sustain and finish drives. Junior PK Bryan Arbes has been a bright spot, kicking three field goals in last week's loss to Charleston to set a school single-season record with 15 3-pointers, but every silver lining comes with its own dark cloud.
"I'm really happy for Bryan," Waialae said. "There are no 'do-overs' in football so it's a credit to Bryan that, when he's had the opportunity to make plays for us this year, he's made plays. On the other hand, we need to do a better job of finishing those possessions with touchdowns instead of settling for field goals. We need some of our offensive guys to step up and make plays for us when we get down there."
Dylan Lagarde has completed 127 of 271 passes for 1,233 yards and five TDs with 6 interceptions on the season. Dylan Potts is the leading receiver with 47 catches for 510 yards and five TDs while Marty Bishop is the team's leading rusher with 415 yards on 108 carries.
Virginia-Wise, a former NAIA power, is finding the road a little bumpier than expected as it transitions to NCAA Division II affiliation with the Mountain East Conference. The Cavaliers have three victories in their last 19 games with their only win this season coming in an 18-10 nail-biter against winless West Virginia State.
Defense and turnovers have been the main areas of concern for the western Virginia school. With 28 interceptions and 10 lost fumbles, UVA-Wise ranks dead last nationally with a minus-29 turnover margin. The Cavaliers also rank near the bottom of the national charts in defense, allowing just under 40 points per game.
James Long, a 6-foot, 180-pound senior wideout, leads the MEC and ranks No. 5 nationally with 73 catches for 1,119 yards and seven TDs. Long is also one of only three NCAA Division II players in the nation with multiple kickoff return TDs this fall. UVA-Wise rotates three quarterbacks - Cullen LaVoi, Ty Ryans and Jeremy Eubanks - who have combined to complete 152 of 323 passes for 1,932 yards and 11 TDs with 28 interceptions.
Speedy WR Terrence Younger backs Long with 38 catches for 475 yards and four TDs but there's little production from the ground game, which averages less than 54 rushing yards a game.
"Their two receivers have made plays against everybody," Waialae said. "Long is one of the best receivers and kick returners in the region so we're really going to have to play well on defense to keep the ball out of his hands. They really try to force the ball to him because he's so good at catching the ball in traffic. We need our safeties to get to those balls and win those battles."
The Hilltoppers appear to be fairly healthy going into Saturday's game. H-Backs R.J. Thomas and Lukas Turley returned to the practice field and may be able to see game action on Saturday. Several other players, including leading tackler Marquis Bradley, are battling nagging injuries but should be ready to go by kickoff.
"Obviously, this season hasn't played out the way we wanted," Waialae said, "but we still have a chance to finish with a winning conference record. We're not thinking about next year. As far as we're concerned, our future is now and we need to take care of business this week and next."