The Mountain East Conference has quietly become one of the power conferences of the 2016 football season. For the first time in conference history, three teams adorn the top 25, with all three teams finding their way into the most recent Super Region One rankings. Sitting atop the MEC are the undefeated Fairmont State Fighting Falcons.
It’s been a long time since the Falcons have been in the national rankings; September 4, 2001, to be exact. Jason Woodman took over the program four seasons ago, trying to get Fairmont State back on the right side of .500. It took some time, finishing 3-7 in his first two seasons, but a 6-4 finish last season saw his squad finish third in the MEC, and more importantly, gave them the confidence of knowing they could compete. Now with a senior class full of his first recruits, the Falcons have taken winning to a new level.
“Here at Fairmont we always expect to be winning games and playing well throughout the season,” Woodman said. “We go into each week prepared to win. If I ever get to the point where anything else is the case, then I need to stop coaching. In August and even at the end of last season, we knew we were very talented and had the pieces to make a run like this, but you never know how things are going to go. Especially at our level, there are so many things that play into the season. We focus on controlling what we can control and go from there.”
Last season didn't just see Woodman and his Falcons finish above .500, but it was how they got there that was more impressive. The Falcons started the 2015 season losing their first two games, being outscored 86-44. But then it all clicked. What the Falcons had been building for three years under Woodman’s tutelage all came together, resulting in a 6-2 finish.
That momentum hasn’t stopped, as they have reeled off nine straight wins in 2016.
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“I say all the time that we learned more from losing the first two games last year than we have from winning 14 of the last 16,” Woodman said before Thursday night’s top-25 matchup against conference rival Notre Dame College. “I think one of the biggest things was the players learned to trust the staff and we learned to trust the players. I’m very fortunate to have the staff that I have around me now. That wasn’t always the case. At the beginning of the season last year, I had only one coach from the previous year. I think it took us, as coaches, a little while to figure each other out and then it took the players a couple weeks to figure us out. Since then, we have played pretty well.”
This season has seen a solid output from the offensive side of the ball, but Fairmont State's defense has been the driving force. Heading into this weekend’s action, it was tied for the second-best scoring defense in the nation, smothering opposing offenses and limiting them to 11.3 points a game. The Falcons rank No. 12 in the nation in total defense as well, allowing a mere 287.1 yards per contest.
“Our defense is playing at a very high level right now,” Woodman said. “Again, a lot of credit needs to go to the staff but the players have done a tremendous job adapting to our philosophy and scheme and have really answered the call week after week. If you look at our team as a whole, a large part of the obvious leaders are on the defensive side of the ball. We have some upper classmen who have been here with me through thick and thin and they have matured and developed over the last few years to lead the younger guys now. That’s where the success of our defense really begins.”
Sitting at 8-0 overall, and a perfect 7-0 in the MEC, the Fighting Falcons headed into the toughest stretch of their schedule by far. Thursday night saw them take on an upstart Notre Dame College which, at 7-1, found itself in the nation’s top 25 (tied for 25th) for the first time in program’s history.
Next weekend, the Falcons face off against last year’s national runner-up Shepherd, which is currently tied atop the MEC with Fairmont State. The game will be broadcast live on ESPN3 and WatchESPN as part of the DII Football Showcase. They then see their season close against a very formidable Glenville State.
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“Any time you play three great teams like Notre Dame, Shepherd and Glenville in a total of 14 days, and at the end of the season, you are going to have struggles,” Woodman said. “Obvious things like injuries and time management are there. Trying to get as much out of them off the field is just as challenging as on the field during that time. Again, I think focusing on the task at hand, day after day, and making that a consistent thing is the only way to survive in tough situations. We’ll focus everyday on getting better whether it’s academically or athletically and not worry about the end results. If we pay attention to details, the results should take care of themselves.”
On Thursday night, the results did take care of themselves. The Falcons moved to a perfect 9-0 on the year, defeating Notre Dame College 23-19 behind a big night from freshman wide receiver Laurence King who topped 100 yards receiving — including a 24-yard touchdown — as well as adding a big 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. They will surely jump in next week’s rankings, breaking the top 20 for the first time this year and making their Saturday showdown with No. 3 Shepherd that much more enticing.
Undefeated. Regionally seeded. Nationally ranked. From 3-7 to 9-0, the Fighting Falcons are looking for their first conference title since 2000, when they were still part of the WVIAC, and Woodman couldn’t be happier.
“I’d be proud of these guys if we weren’t ranked,” Woodman said. “The rankings don’t mean a whole lot to us. Obviously it means a lot to the Regional committee and determining the postseason, but I get more enjoyment out of seeing our guys practicing and improving every day. We understand that with consistent hard work comes winning. With winning comes all the other stuff like rankings and playoffs. We just try to take it one day at a time.”