WEST LIBERTY - After a big victory against nationally-ranked Shepherd last week, Coach Roger Waialae's Hilltoppers can jump back into the thick of the West Virginia Conference race on Saturday when once-beaten Charleston rolls into Russek Field.
"We told our guys heading into last week's game that we could stick our nose in it (the WVIAC title chase) with a win against Shepherd," Waialae said. "Well, we can put both feet in it if we can come out of here with a win (today)."
Despite last week's 17-16 thriller against No. 25 Shepherd, that doesn't figure to be an easy task as West Liberty (4-3 overall, 3-2 WVC) won't be the only team at Russek Field coming off a victory against a nationally ranked foe.
The Golden Eagles (6-1, 3-1) also collected a Top 25 scalp last week when Charleston traveled to Pembroke, N.C. and dropped a 42-30 thumping on No. 24 UNC-Pembroke.
All-Conference tailback Jordan Roberts had a huge day in the Tarheel State. The WVIAC's leading rusher ran for 144 yards and two TDs, added another touchdown on a 100-yard kickoff return and threw a 31-yard TD pass. The Golden Eagles, who racked up 27 first downs and more than 400 yards of offense, also scored on a blocked punt return and had the game pretty much put away by halftime with a 35-16 lead.
"Charleston is playing with a lot of confidence right now," Waialae said. "They're the most well-rounded team in the league. They have a really good back in Roberts who can hurt you in a variety of ways and a veteran quarterback in (Maurice) Leak. Their defense is nationally ranked and (Puma) Nuredini's probably the best kicker in the conference. We played a good football team last week and we've got another one coming in this week."
West Liberty will be trying to build on the momentum created from back-to-back victories against West Virginia State and Shepherd as a different Hilltopper team appears to be evolving over the course of the season.
Defense and special teams have become a primary focus in recent weeks as Waialae and his coaching staff look to work with the strengths of their current roster.
"We're taking a more close-to-the-vest approach with this group than we have with previous teams," Waialae said. "We have talent but the key to long-term success in anything is consistency. We've been pretty consistent on defense and special teams all year and now we're starting to develop that on offense.
"We'll probably have a similar game plan this week in terms of relying on our defense and special teams to win the field position battle. Offensively, we'll stay pretty conservative overall but look for some big-play opportunities that might enable us to flip the field."
The plan worked to perfection last week as 170 of the Hilltoppers' 298 passing yards against Shepherd came on just three completions all covering more than 50 yards.
A 61-yard pass from freshman QB Dylan Lagarde to Hakeem Cartwright set up West Liberty's go-ahead touchdown while a 56-yard receiver pass from Ben Rogers to Dominic Cooper and a 53-yarder from Lagarde to Tristen Devers led to successful Hilltopper field goal attempts - although one of the field goals was wiped off the scoreboard by a penalty.
"That's a Shepherd team that never gives up the big play," Waialae said, "but we were able to hit three of them and just missed a fourth. We have to take advantage of those situations when they present themselves."
Lagarde improved to 2-0 as a collegiate starter by completing 18 of 35 passes for 242 yards with only one interception. Devers led all receivers with five catches for 90 yards and tailback Kenjay Trueblood highlighted the ground game with a 19-yard touchdown run.
Weak safety Marco Ricchetti tied a career high with 12 tackles and lateraled to Rod White for a first-quarter touchdown at the end of a 42-yard interception return. Linebacker Kyle Agustin also tied a career high with 14 tackles for a Hilltoppers defense that ranks among the nation's best in several categories.
That unit will be tested by a Charleston offense that has rushed for 200 or more yards in each of the last four meetings between the two teams. Roberts a transfer from WVU has rushed for more than 200 yards and scored five TDs in his last two games against the Hilltoppers but Leak, one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the league, has been a thorn in WLU's side with 135 rushing yards.
"Everybody knows about Roberts," Waialae said, "but Leak's a very good running quarterback and we've noticed them using more designed quarterback runs now that he's healthy. On top of that, they have some good young receivers starting to come into their own. They're probably a heavy favorite but I like the fight our kids have shown the last couple of weeks. It's one more opportunity for them to rise to the challenge."