Coming off an impressive defensive performance in last week's 16-13 victory against Glenville State, the West Liberty University football team will be looking for more of the same on Saturday when they face their first Mountain East Conference road test of the season at West Virginia State.
The Hilltoppers (1-1, 1-0) and Yellow Jackets (0-2, 0-1) are set for a 1 p.m. kickoff at Lakin Field in Institute.
"We played much better last week on both sides of the ball than we did in Week One," head coach Roger Waialae said. "We made some plays on offense and created some turnovers defensively. If you make more plays and fewer mistakes than your opponent, you can win a lot of football games and we beat a pretty good football team last week."
On the surface, this week's opponent may not appear to be at the same level as a Glenville State squad that was coming off a near-upset of NCAA Division I FCS Virginia Military Institute.
First-year head coach Jon Anderson has been handed the daunting task of getting a downtrodden West Virginia State program back on track. The Yellow Jackets have won just 3 of their last 30 games and the first two games of the Anderson Era appear to have been just more of the same. State opened with a 31-13 loss to Lock Haven (Pa.) and come into Saturday's contest off a 36-3 thumping at the hands of MEC power Concord.
Waialae, however, warns that this year's game tapes bear little resemblance to recent State teams.
"I think they're much better than what you might think from just looking at the scores of their first two games," Waialae said. "They have some talented skill people – the quarterback is a fifth-year senior who transferred in from maybe the top NCAA Division II program in the country – and they look to be a much more physical team than they have been in the past."
Tyler Seals is the Yellow Jackets' new quarterback, arriving in August as a transfer from perennial national championship contender Northwest Missouri State. Seals, who still holds several Nebraska high school passing records, started a couple of games at Northwest Missouri but came to W.Va. State in search of an opportunity to finish his collegiate career as a full-time starter.
Through the first two games under Anderson, however, the Yellow Jackets have been more of a run-oriented squad with Seals handing the ball off on nearly 60 percent of the snaps.
Seals has completed 37-of-66 passes for 344 yards and a TD with 4 interceptions but running backs Le'Floyd Phillips and Josh Wade have combined for 230 rushing yards on 66 carries this year.
The strength of the State defense lies in a physical and aggressive front seven. Despite the lopsided final score, Concord – which was coming off a win against nationally-ranked Lenoir-Rhyne – was held to just 74 rushing yards on an average of 2.5 yards per carry last week. There may be opportunities for the Hilltopper passing game in the WVSU secondary as the Yellow Jackets allowed 14 passes of 10 yards or more last week – including TDs of 36 and 86 yards.
After jumping out to a 16-0 lead midway through the third quarter, Waialae conceded he may have gotten a little too conservative with his offensive play-calling during the fourth quarter of the Glenville win.
"Looking back," Waialae said, "I probably did shut down our offense a little early but I don't go into games looking to put 50 points on the board, I'm just looking for a win. (Glenville TB Rahmann) Lee is probably the best offensive weapon in the league and, as you saw, they have the talent to score in a hurry.
"Our consistency isn't where it needs to be on offense but it's coming. We still had too many 3-and-outs but we did create some big plays and also had a couple of extended drives where we showed some consistency and executed."
The Hilltoppers got points in all three phases of the game against Glenville, scoring an offensive touchdown with a 13-yard pass and run from QB Dylan Lagarde to WR Dylan Potts; notching a defensive touchdown when DE Sam Robinson recovered a Pioneer fumble in the end zone; and getting a 34-yard field goal from Bryan Arbes on special teams.
Kenjay Trueblood just missed a 100-yard rushing game with 93 yards on 25 carries. Lagarde completed 14-of-25 passes for 144 yards while Potts led all receivers for the second straight week with 5 catches for 58 yards. Senior CB Rod White earned MEC Defensive Player of the Week honors with a pair of clutch red-zone interceptions and punter Griff Yocum was the MEC Special Teams Player of the Week after his second straight impressive performance.
"I'm an aggressive offensive coach," Waialae said, "and for the last 8 years, I prided myself on never punting inside the other team's 50. That's changed now and Griff deserves a lot of credit for that. He set up that fumble recovery touchdown last week with a 59-yard punt that was downed inside the Glenville 1 and I think he's already had 8 or 9 punts inside the 20.
"I have to make decisions to win football games, not to feed my pride, but knowing we're able to pin people down and let our defense go to work makes those decisions a lot easier."
West Liberty returns home next week to host Concord in the annual Hall of Fame Game. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at Russek Field.