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."
While the offense was peaking, the UC defense was riddled by Notre Dame. With Pedro Powell rushing for 200 yards and Ray Russ throwing for 345, Notre Dame piled up 529 total yards against the Eagles.
"Notre Dame had a lot of good skill kids," Kirkland said. "I was disappointed in our execution, especially late in the game. They were just straight mental busts, and it hurt us."
Still, the Golden Eagles came away with the win to keep them unbeaten in the MEC heading into the showdown in Shepherdstown.
"It's another conference game," Kirkland said. "To reach our goals we've got to win them all."
Also in the MEC Saturday:
Fairmont State (2-2, 1-2) at Concord (3-1, 2-0), 1 p.m.: Concord hasn't allowed a touchdown in its two MEC wins (36-3 over West Virginia State, 20-3 at West Liberty last Saturday), but the Mountain Lions will face a Fairmont team coming off a 56-3 romp over State, in which the Falcons amassed 414 total yards on offense. Fairmont senior running back Dawrence Roberts earned MEC offensive player of the week honors by rushing for 175 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries. Two former Winfield standouts earned MEC honors in Concord's win over West Liberty: Senior safety Josh Clark was the player of the week on defense after forcing a fumble and returning an interception 32 yards for a touchdown, and sophomore place-kicker Andy Ellington earned special-teams co-player of the week (with UC's Nuredini) by kicking field goals of 48 yards (a school record) and 42 yards.
Urbana (2-2, 2-1) at West Virginia State (0-4, 0-3), 1:30 p.m.: Including last week's debacle against Fairmont, the Yellow Jackets have been outscored 132-19 and have scored just one touchdown in four games. This week's prospects also appear dim at State hosts an Urbana team averaging 430 yards on offense, spearheaded by the MEC's passing leader, D.J. Mendenhall, who has thrown for 1,368 yards and 11 touchdowns. The Blue Knights were held mostly in check last week at home by Glenville State, accumulating just 222 offensive yards, but Urbana emerged with a 12-9 win thanks to a defensive effort led by D'Gary Wallace (13 tackles, one sack and a game-ending interception). Urbana's only league loss was a 28-21 setback at Shepherd Sept. 21.
West Virginia Wesleyan (1-3, 1-2) at Glenville State (1-3, 1-2), 1:30 p.m.: Glenville has had two three-point road losses (16-13 at West Liberty, 12-9 at Urbana) sandwiched around a 31-14 home win over Fairmont; Wesleyan lost 45-10 to Shepherd at home last week, preceded by a 34-25 setback at Notre Dame. Wesleyan has been torched for 135 points in four games, ranking 10th in the 11-team MEC. Glenville's Rahmann Lee ranks second in the league with 479 rushing yards and gets 5.2 yards per carry, while Wesleyan boasts the MEC's third-leading passer in Jeremy Musselman (282.3 yards per game), but he had to sit out last week's loss to Shepherd after he was sidelined with a concussion in the Notre Dame game.
Virginia-Wise (0-4, 0-2) at Notre Dame College (2-2, 1-2), 2 p.m.: Virginia-Wise has had a rough introduction to its new league, losing MEC contests to Wesleyan (37-7) and UC (38-15) in addition to non-conference losses to Campbell (56-21) and Union College (24-17 last Saturday). In their homecoming game against Union, the Cavaliers lost on a touchdown pass with three seconds left in regulation. Notre Dame is also coming off a heartbreaking loss, 34-32 at UC, in which the Falcons accumulated 529 yards. Notre Dame has the MEC's most potent offense, averaging 488 offensive yards, and the Falcons' 122 points through four games trail only Shepherd. Powell, who rushed for 200 yards against UC, leads the MEC with 593 rushing yards.
West Liberty (2-2, 2-1) at Duquesne (1-2), 12:10 p.m.: Duquesne, a member of the FCS Northeast Conference, was off last week so the Dukes have an extra week to prepare for the Hilltoppers. Perhaps they need it, because West Liberty defeated Duquesne in the only prior meeting between the schools, a 21-19 decision in 2006. The Dukes, whose last game was a 59-17 loss at Youngstown State on Sept. 21, are led by redshirt freshman quarterback Dillon Buechel, who has thrown for 966 yards and five touchdowns in his first three games. West Liberty, which opened the MEC campaign with close wins over Glenville (16-3) and West Virginia State (9-0), is coming off a 20-3 home loss to Concord last week.
Reach Nick Scala at 304-348-7947 or firstname.lastname@example.org.