CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The University of Charleston's football conference might have a different name, some new members and an adjusted geography, but one thing hasn't changed in the switch from the West Virginia Conference to the Mountain East Conference - the championship runs through Shepherd.
UC, 2-2 overall but 2-0 in the inaugural season in the MEC, visits Shepherd (4-0, 3-0) in a noon showdown Saturday at Shepherdstown. It will also be Shepherd's homecoming game.
The Rams, who won the league title last year in the final season of the WVC, climbed up two spots to No. 12 in the Division II coaches' poll after crushing West Virginia Wesleyan 45-10 last week. As UC coach Pat Kirkland explains it, Shepherd has everything a title team needs.
"I've seen a lot of Shepherd teams dating back to my time coaching at Glenville, and this is probably the most complete football team they've had in terms of experience, talent and depth," Kirkland said.
Last year at UC Stadium, the Rams emerged with a 16-10 win over the Golden Eagles on their way to the WVC championship and an NCAA Division II playoff berth.
"Their front five on offense and front six on defense are same kids we saw last year, they're just a year older and a year better," Kirkland said. "We respect them very much, but we embrace this challenge."
UC is coming off a skin-of-its-teeth 34-32 home win over Notre Dame College last Saturday, when the Golden Eagles won it on Puma Nuredini's 35-yard field goal as time expired.
The win also marked the emergence of John Knox as a major force in UC's offense.
Knox, who filled in at quarterback when Maurice Leak was out with an injury last year, rushed for 147 yards on 18 carries against Notre Dame, including touchdown runs of 19 and 67 yards, and caught three passes for 45 yards.
Despite the big rushing numbers, Knox can't be classified as a running back because most of the time he'll line up as a wide receiver. So what should he be called?
"We call him our 'OW' - offensive weapon," Kirkland said.
Knox's effectiveness opened things up for the now-healthy Leak, who went 15 of 26 through the air for 157 yards and engineered a 60-yard drive in the final minutes to set up Nuredini's game-winning kick.
In all, the UC offense accounted for a season-high 466 total yards.
"We threw the ball better, but we're not where we need to be" in the passing game, Kirkland said. "But we were more efficient."