WLU Makes Long Trek To Wise, Va.
WISE, Va. — The West Liberty University football team is preparing for the long trek south to Wise, Va. and what shapes up as the marquee game on this weekend’s Mountain East Conference schedule.
Coach Roger Waialae’s Hilltoppers (2-1 overall, 2-1 Mountain East) are the Homecoming opponent for UVa-Wise (2-1, 2-1) on Saturday in the only conference matchup featuring two teams with winning records. Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m. at Carl Smith Stadium.
Both teams are coming off low-scoring defensive struggles. West Liberty shut down Charleston’s nationally ranked rushing attack to hand it a 9-6 loss but penalties and turnovers proved fatal for the Cavaliers in a 7-0 setback on the road at Concord.
“It’s always a physical game with Charleston,” Waialae said. “That’s just the nature of our two teams. I’m proud of the way our guys stood toe-to-toe with them and never backed down once. Good things happen when you play with that level of passion and commitment for 60 minutes.”
After getting off to a 2-0 start that was impressive enough to draw votes in last week’s NCAA Division II Top 25 coaches’ poll, UVa-Wise spent a dismal Thursday night in Athens shooting itself in the foot until it ran out of bullets. The Cavaliers had an apparent touchdown called back due to a holding penalty, threw an interception in the end zone, coughed up a fumble inside the Concord 5, had a field-goal attempt blocked and were flagged a staggering 16 times for 162 yards.
The UVa-Wise defense held up its end of the bargain, giving up seven first downs and 131 yards of total offense, but it didn’t matter. The only points of the game came midway through the fourth quarter when the Mountain Lions’ Jeremiah Johnson picked off a Brycen Lee pass and returned it 36 yards for a touchdown.
The Cavaliers offense was averaging more than 37 points a game before last week’s mistake-filled outing and rolled up 500 yards of total offense against WLU a year ago so Waialae expects his improving defense will be put to the test.
Lee, a sophomore, has taken advantage of a tall and talented receiving corps to emerge as one of the top young quarterbacks in the region. The 6-foot-5, 190-pounder is averaging nearly 280 passing yards a game while completing more than 60 percent of his passes.
“They have a really athletic group of big receivers and their quarterback does a good job of keeping the ball high and giving them opportunities to make plays,” Waialae said. “Our defensive backs have to be physical, jamming the receivers at the line and disrupting their timing, but the most important thing for us is to make them one-dimensional. Taking away the run and making them throw when they have to instead of when they want to will give us the best chance to win.”
Injuries have forced a bit of reshuffling along West Liberty’s offensive line and assorted bumps and bruises are also affecting the running back rotation but Waialae likes the way his team has responded to adversity.
“We have been dealing with some injuries but the guys who are stepping in have been getting better and better every day,” Waialae said. “Savion (Johnson) gave us a nice lift last week. He’s a big back who runs hard and it’s a different look than any other back in the league. If we can keep him healthy, he gives us a nice weapon.”
The Hilltoppers haven’t put up huge offensive numbers this season. In fact, they’ve been outscored by a 61-33 margin through the first three games but have still gotten off to a 2-1 start and put themselves in position to get to 3-1 for the first time since the 2009 team made a run to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division II playoffs.
“The only stat that matters is the one on the scoreboard,” Waialae said. “The object of the game is to win and the only way to do that is by scoring more points than the other team. It doesn’t matter whether it’s 9-6 or 39-36. The big difference in our two wins was that we did a much better job of taking care of the football. You can’t give away possessions, especially when the defense is playing as well as our defense has played.”
∫ The Cavaliers’ 7-0 loss at Concord was the third MEC shutout just three weeks into the season after the league saw only one during the entire 2016 campaign. Not surprisingly, all three shutout victims were playing on the road.
∫ The Hilltoppers are 60-9 under Waialae when leading at the half but 8-49 when trailing after two quarters.
∫ Thursday’s 9-6 win against Charleston marked the fewest points scored in a WLU win since a 9-0 victory at W.Va. State on Sept. 21, 2013.
∫ UVa-Wise offensive line coach Mike Compton is a former WVU All-American who had a 12-year NFL career, including a pair of Super Bowl championships with the New England Patriots.
∫ Junior WR Osman Kargbo, West Liberty’s leading receiver, and senior DB Ed Kargbo, the Cavaliers’ leading tackler, are cousins.
∫ UVa-Wise senior TB Carlton Griffith is averaging more than 100 rushing yards a game in three career starts against West Liberty.
∫ The Hilltoppers lead the MEC and rank No. 5 nationally in fewest penalty yards per game (34.0).
∫ The Cavaliers rank dead last (168th) nationally in penalty yards, having been flagged for an average of 124.7 ypg.