When Shepherd junior quarterback Jeff Ziemba was asked what makes NCAA Division II playoffs exciting, his thoughts quickly shifted to the fans that filled Ram Stadium last weekend.
Sure, the Rams needed to execute on the field. They entered their second round game trailing 13-3 entering the fourth quarter. Shepherd scored two touchdowns in the final quarter to slip past Indiana University (Pa.) 17-14.
“The atmosphere at our game last week and the way they were reacting, especially the fourth quarter, you could feel the field shaking,” Ziemba said. “They definitely helped us out. They didn’t lose faith. They helped change the momentum in the game.”
The Rams will once again have their fans behind them in the quarterfinals. Shepherd, 11-0, takes on Slippery Rock, 12-1, at noon ET Saturday at Ram Stadium. The winner moves to the semifinals.
Shepherd was in this position in 2013. The Rams lost to West Chester in the quarterfinals.
“I took over that year as a redshirt freshman,” Ziemba said. “Playing in those situations and that big of a game and the way that turned out was one of the biggest learning experience I have had. I told myself that wouldn’t happen again.
“I have been real excited since that day. We are here and ready to play.”
Another thing that has pushed the 2015 Rams to a perfect season so far was how the 2014 season ended. Shepherd lost 23-20 in overtime to Concord in the final regular season game. It was the second loss and it cost Shepherd a spot in the playoffs.
“Losing that game last year in overtime definitely hurt all of us,” Ziemba said. “We had a little anger built up. Going through this season, we came together. We are here now so it is great.”
Throughout the regular season Shepherd made sure there were no hiccups. The Rams scored over 40 points in every game except the one against Concord, which Shepherd won 35-28.
Ziemba credits the defense, the coaching staff for coming up with good game plans and being able to run and pass for the success this season.
Because of that execution, Shepherd is one of eight teams left in NCAA Division II with an opportunity to win the 2015 national championship.
“It is great making it, being one of the top eight,” Ziemba said. “We are trying to treat it like every other game. We take practice very serious. We are thankful to be in this situation. We are ready for Slippery Rock.”
Series history: Slippery Rock leads 3-1
Last meeting: Shepherd won 24-7 in 2005
Total offense: Slippery Rock, 503.4; Shepherd, 427.1
Total defense: Slippery Rock, 363.0; Shepherd, 287.2
Points scored: Slippery Rock, 45.5; Shepherd, 41.4
Points allowed: Slippery Rock, 19.7; Shepherd, 16.6
Late touchdown puts Tuskegee in quarterfinals
With just under 4 minutes left in the game, Tuskegee held North Alabama to a field goal. It broke a tie and gave North Alabama a lead, but it was a key moment, said Tuskegee coach Willie Slater.
“I think our defense has played consistently well all year long,” Slater said. “The two games we lost we hurt ourselves late in the game. Overall, our defense has played well all year.”
The Tuskegee defense gave its offense enough time to go a 10-play, 72-yard game-winning drive that concluded on a 2-yard touchdown run by Dennis Norfleet with 19 seconds left, lifting Tuskegee to a 35-31 win.
“We had a couple of great plays,” Slater said. “I thought we held their composure very well. We had a couple of plays that didn’t go well in that last drive. And then we had one big play to get the ball close. The guys executed and got it in the end zone.”
The victory puts Tuskegee in the quarterfinals. The Golden Tigers, 10-2 overall and the No. 6 seed in Super Region Two, travels to West Georgia, 11-1, the No. 1 seed. Kickoff at University Stadium in Carrollton, Ga., is noon ET Saturday.
“It is a great thing,” Slater said of reaching the quarterfinals. “It is a great thing for our players. I am really proud of them for that. I think that is a tribute to them. It is good for our institution as well. We are very excited about it.”
This game is also a big moment for West Georgia. Last year the Wolves won their quarterfinal game and then lost 10-7 in the semifinals to the eventual national champions Colorado State-Pueblo. The Wolves want to top what they did last year.
Total offense: Tuskegee, 336.4; West Georgia, 415.4
Total defense: Tuskegee, 277.0; West Georgia, 245.8
Points scored: Tuskegee, 30.3; West Georgia, 38.0
Points allowed: Tuskegee, 17.1; West Georgia, 15.3