Shutdown defense sparks West Chester past Shepherd in quarterfinals
SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.V. – Al-Hajj Shabazz and Brandon Pepper returned a pair of interceptions for touchdowns 17 seconds apart in the fourth quarter to break open a tight game and lead No. 15 West Chester to a 28-7 victory against No. 6 Shepherd.
West Chester (13-1) moves on to the national semifinals where the Golden Rams will face Lenoir-Rhyne (12-1), which was a 42-39 winner against North Alabama in the Super Region 2 Championship Game Saturday. Shepherd (11-1) suffered its first defeat of the season with the playoff loss.
Shabazz intercepted Shepherd QB Jeff Ziemba's fourth-down pass at the West Chester 24-yard line and raced down the near sideline with an escort for a 76-yard touchdown that put the Golden Rams up 21-7 with 6:17 to play in the game.
Pepper than stepped in front of Ziemba's first-down pass attempt on the Rams' very next drive and took it to the house, putting host Shepherd in a 28-7 hole with exactly six minutes left to play. Pepper then intercepted Ziemba's very next pass at Shepherd's 45-yard line to salt away the game for West Chester. It ended a string of three straight interceptions on three consecutive plays from scrimmage.
The Golden Rams then ran out the clock on a nine-play drive to advance to the national semifinals for the first time since 2004 and just the second time in school history.
"Our defense stepped up today," West Chester head coach Bill Zwaan said. "That is as good as I've seen them play all year. I don't think I've ever seen back-to-back interceptions returned for a touchdown before."
Harlon Hill finalist Rondell White rushed for 94 yards and one touchdown in the game. His 3-yard scamper up the middle staked West Chester to a 7-0 lead with six minutes left in the first quarter.
Shepherd's Jabre Lolley tied the game on a 2-yard run of his own with 28 seconds left in the opening frame. West Chester QB Sean McCartney then hit Sr., WR LaRonn Lee for a 31-yard TD pass early in the second quarter to put the visitors back on top, 14-7.
That is the way things stayed until Shabazz grabbed Ziemba's fourth-down throw in the fourth quarter and took off.
"We were all screaming for [Shabazz] to knock it down because it was fourth down," Zwaan explained. "Then, we all started yelling, 'Go, go, go.
"But, boy, both defenses played really well today. [Shepherd] made some adjustments at halftime, and we struggled offensively in the second half."
West Chester racked up 304 yards of total offense while Shepherd was limited to 271. It marked just the third time this year that Shepherd allowed an opponent more than 300 yards of total offense in a game.
"(WCU CB Blaise Schieler) played amazing today," Shabazz said afterwards. "I know that he didn't have a pick. But, he played amazing. We have some young guys in our secondary. But, they stepped up today. I think we have been disrespected a little bit this year. We are a lot better now … in leaps and bounds."
Lee finished with three catches for 93 yards, including his 31-yard TD reception. The senior has been battling injuries for much of the 2013 campaign, but has come to play in the postseason.
"Words cannot express how I feel right now. This is something great to be a part of," Lee commented. "(WCU QB Sean McCartney) is the supportive base for this team. We have a whole lot of emotional people on this team. But, Sean is the one that tells us to calm down and focus."
Lolley finished with 69 yards rushing on 15 attempts for Shepherd. Ziemba went 13-for-31 for 151 yards, but threw three interceptions. William McKenzie caught five passes for 49 yards, as well.
West Chester's Brandon Pepper picked up two more takeaways on Saturday with his two interceptions. He has now intercepted a pass in each of the Golden Rams' three postseason contests. He has three INTs and one forced fumble combined in the team's three NCAA tournament games.