Shepherd University clinging to a seven-point lead in the last two minutes of Saturday’s contest, Rams coach Ernie McCook knew an onside kick was coming from University of Findlay’s special teams.
The Oilers pulled within striking distance of the Rams, thanks to a 51-yard field goal by Austin Snyder with 1 minute, 58 seconds left on the clock.
McCook also knew Findlay was capable of mounting a potential game-tying scoring drive if they got the ball back with an onside kick recovery. So when Snyder punched a short kick just over the heads of Shepherd’s front kick-return coverage line, the ball took a few bounces, setting up a major scrum between both teams as they battled for possession of the free ball.
A sea of Rams and Oilers players piled on near the Shepherd sideline, near the Rams’, 40-yard line as the play was whistled dead. One by one, the officials unpiled the players. McCook, who was nearby, was hoping one of his players would emerge with the ball.
After a few seconds, McCook heard some exciting words. “I finally started to relax when the referee said: ‘Blue ball,’” he recalled.
Shepherd went on to sustain a drive long—enough for Findlay to exhaust its remaining timeouts and preserve a hard-earned, 38-31, win in the first round of the NCAA Division II playoffs at Ram Stadium.
“I’ve said this since our first practice on Aug. 19, this team has a lot of great players with a lot of grit,” McCook said. “These guys have made a lot of sacrifices. They absolutely love to play the game of football. It shows every week in their preparation, the effort they put in during practice, and the effort they put in on game day.”
The win sends the eighth-ranked Rams (11-1) into the second round of the Division II playoffs this Saturday. Shepherd will host the Notre Dame College (Ohio) Falcons, a 33-25 winner over Slippery Rock University, at a time to be announced later.
Saturday’s game at Shepherd ended up being a back-and-forth shootout of sorts. There were two lead changes and three ties before the Rams went ahead for good on a 15-yard touchdown run by running back Ty Hebron with 9:09 left in the game.
Of Shepherd’s 12 possessions, six resulted in scores—five touchdowns and a field goal.
The Oilers struck first, with their quarterback Matt Winzeler hitting running back Grant Clark with a 19-yard touchdown pass six seconds into the second quarter. Snyder’s kick gave Findlay a 7-0 lead.
The Rams took the ensuing kickoff and went 72 yards on 12 plays, with Hebron scoring on a 3-yard run with 9:16 left in the half. Place-kicker Hayden Austin-Scriv’s kick tied the score at 7.
Shepherd took a 14-7 lead at the 6:18 mark when running back Chance Swartz scored on a 14-yard run, but the Oilers answered with 2:02 left in the half on a 78-yard TD pass from Winzeler to wideout Marlin Richardson.
The score was tied at 14 at the half. The shootout continued in the second half.
The Rams went up 21-14, with quarterback Tyson Bagent hooking up with running back Ronnie Brown for a 57-yard TD strike, with 8:47 to go in the third quarter. Less than two minutes later, the Oilers knotted the score at 21 on a Winzeler-to-Tan Schroeder, 66-yard, touchdown pass.
Shepherd edged ahead, 24-21, on a 39-yard field goal from Austin-Scriv with 3:42 left in the quarter, but Findlay would take one last lead in last Saturday’s game before the Rams took the lead for good.
Winzeler threw a 53-yard touchdown pass to Mike Rigerman less than two minutes into the fourth quarter. The Oilers were up, 28-24, before Hebron’s second touchdown of the game put the Rams ahead to stay.
Bagent hit wideout Greg Leonard with a 31-yard TD pass with four minutes to go in the game, with an Austin-Scriv extra-point kick giving the Rams a 38-28 advantage.
“We knew it was going to be a dogfight coming in,” Ernie McCook said. “Findlay is a well-coached team. We knew they were going to be strong in all three phases of their game. They believe in what they do. We knew we were going to play for four quarters. We just had to continue to make plays.”
Bagent, named Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference East Offensive Player of the Year, admitted it wasn’t one of his better games after completing 22 of 34 passes for 288 yards and two touchdowns. He was intercepted twice, with the Oilers converting both of those turnovers into scores.
“I didn’t play as clean as I wanted to,” he said. “I thought the defense did a wonderful job of keeping us in the game. I think Findlay did a good job of mixing the coverage up. That’s all on me. That’s something I look to take care of next week.”
Shepherd defensive back John Chaney had a 23-yard interception return in the second quarter, helping to keep the Oilers’ offense in check. “It was a tough game, but we came in here with a game plan and we stuck to it,” he said.
Hebron rushed for 124 yards on 20 carries with two touchdowns.
Wideout Josh Gontarek had seven catches for 77 yards for the Rams. Winzeler completed 16 of 31 passes for 398 yards and four touchdowns for Findlay.