WEST LIBERTY - After an impressive road romp at West Virginia State last week, the West Liberty University football team will have to strap the helmets on a little tighter when No. 25 Shepherd rides its five-game winning streak into Russek Field for Saturday's annual Homecoming Game.
Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. on the hilltop.
"I've been very impressed by Shepherd (5-1 overall, 4-0 WVC) this year," Hilltopper head coach Roger Waialae said. "Their defense has just been outstanding. They try to take away the run and force you to throw. Then they try to get to your quarterback before he can get rid of it and trust their defensive backs to make plays on the ball. (Coach) Monte (Cater) has been there for 26 years and he hasn't changed. He's had some really good defenses and this is one of his best."
Waialae's Hilltoppers (3-3, 2-2) are coming off their best offensive performance, a 52-19 blowout of West Virginia State that saw West Liberty rack up 500 yards of total offense. True freshman QB Dylan Lagarde made the most of his first collegiate start, throwing for 302 yards and five TDs to earn WVIAC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
Lagarde completed 25 of 42 passes but he didn't play favorites. Each of his five TD tosses went to a different receiver and 12 Hilltoppers had caught at least one pass by the end of the day. That wasn't the only bright spot for the West Liberty offense as TB Kenjay Trueblood ran for 104 yards on 18 carries while fellow TBs Isiah Moody and Dirone McBride combined for 83 more yards on 19 attempts.
It was the most passing yards, the most rushing yards and the most total yards for WLU in any game this season.
Shepherd opened the season with a 38-28 loss to No. 16 Shippensburg but the preseason pick to win the West Virginia Conference has been living up to expectations ever since. Bolstered by the No. 1 rushing defense in the nation, the Rams have reeled off five straight wins and are sitting all alone atop the WVIAC standings with a 4-0 league mark.
The Eastern Panhandle squad has been dominant in its four conference games. Shepherd has given up a total of just 65 rushing yards in those four games and hasn't given up a single point in the second half of any WVIAC game this year.
The Hilltoppers also have some pretty impressive defensive numbers, ranking ninth nationally in rushing defense, 13th in pass efficiency defense, 24th in total defense and 26th in scoring defense while leading the nation with 21 forced turnovers - 13 interceptions and 8 fumble recoveries. Two of those interceptions were turned into points at West Virginia State as cornerback Rod White and linebacker Mike Jefferson each had 32-yard TDs on interception returns.
"We've done a pretty good job on defense," Waialae said. "We're playing hard and getting around the ball. Good things happen when you do that.
"When you play Shepherd, you have to stop the run because if Monte finds out he can run the ball consistently, he'll just grind out the game. Offensively, we have to be patient and stay on schedule.
"Our wide receivers have to catch the ball and move the sticks and we need to make some plays in the running game. We also have to take care of the ball. They're very good at putting points on the board with their defense or special teams they've blocked 7 kicks in 6 games and we can't let that happen."
The Hilltoppers have averaged just 39.1 rushing yards a game against Shepherd in the seven meetings during the Waialae Era and haven't rushed for 100 yards against the Eastern Panhandle squad since 2003.