After getting off to a 2-0 start in Mountain East Conference play, there's an air of anticipation surrounding the West Liberty University football program as the Hilltoppers prepare to host a talented Concord squad in an early-season MEC showdown on Saturday.
Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at Russek Field.
At this early juncture in the season, seven of the 11 MEC teams have already taken a loss in conference play so the fact that two of the unbeaten squads will be colliding in West Liberty on Saturday adds a little luster to the match up.
Veteran West Liberty coach Roger Waialae knows the significance of Saturday's game but he's also been around long enough to understand that there's still a lot of football to be played in the MEC's inaugural season.
"They're all big games when you're in conference play," Waialae said. "That's especially true this year because not everybody plays everybody. For example, we don't play Shepherd and Concord doesn't play Glenville State. We won't know how all it plays out until the end of the year.
"That's why we've been telling our kids after every game, ‘one down and one to go.' Everything was focused on West Virginia State last week and everything was focused on Concord this week. We don't think about our conference record or our overall record. We just want to go 1-0 on Saturday afternoon."
There are more similarities than differences between Concord (2-1, 1-0) and the Hilltoppers (2-1, 2-0) as both defenses rank among the nation's best while their offenses have struggled with consistency.
West Liberty is coming off a 9-0 shutout win in a driving rain at West Virginia State last week and has given up a total of just 23 points in its first three games, which ranks No. 2 nationally. Concord is coming off a 16-10 loss to a Bowie State (Md.) team which had been averaging more than 40 points a game coming into the contest.
Although the Hilltoppers managed just three field goals on seven trips into the West Virginia State red zone last week, Waialae said he saw signs of improvement on the offensive side of the ball.
"For one thing," he said, "to have more than 300 yards of total offense on that field in those conditions was pretty significant. We knew it was going to rain so we adjusted our game plan accordingly. The only disappointment was the unforced errors with turnovers on the quarterback snaps.
"Even so, we were able to control time of possession and field position all day. You have to adjust to all conditions if you're going to be a good football team and we handled them better than State did on Saturday."
With veteran running backs Dominic Cooper and Kenjay Trueblood battling nagging injuries, Waialae gave true freshman Marty Bishop his first collegiate start and the hard-nosed youngster responded with a punishing 92 rushing yards on 25 carries. Quarterback Dylan Lagarde completed 17-of-35 passes for 168 yards despite the conditions and wide receiver Dylan Potts was the leading receiver for the third time in as many games with 7 catches for 68 yards.
Concord not only ranks No. 5 nationally in total defense (239.0 ypg.) and scoring defense (9.7 ppg.) but is third in passing defense (87.7 ypg.) and has allowed only 8 third down conversions all season while forcing 9 turnovers. Unfortunately, coach Garin Justice's squad has had turnover problems of its own with 7 lost fumbles and 6 interceptions. The Mountain Lions lost 2 fumbles inside the Bowie State 10 during the fourth quarter of last week's loss.
Redshirt freshman QB Brian Novak has completed 54-of-96 passes for 601 yards but Concord has struggled to get its rushing attack going, averaging a mere 2.6 yards per carry. Senior All-America LB Jake Lilly leads the nation with four forced fumbles and needs just 8 tackles to reach 300 for his career.
"They're pretty much a mirror image of us," Waialae said. "They've played great defense against some pretty good teams but like us, their offense has left a lot of points on the field. Whichever team does the best job of capitalizing on its opportunities is the team that will come out on top Saturday."
West Liberty closes out its non-conference schedule next week with a game at NCAA Division I FCS Duquesne in Pittsburgh. Kickoff is set for 12:10 p.m. at Rooney Field.
X This will be the Hilltoppers' Hall of Fame Game with the 33rd annual induction ceremony for the WLU Athletic Hall of Fame set for Saturday morning at the ASRC. The Class of 2013 – James Branch, Jim Crutchfield, Donald Jernigan and Jim Schmitt – will be introduced to the crowd at halftime
X West Liberty senior CB Rod White has intercepted 3 passes in the last 2 games with all 3 picks snuffing out enemy possessions in the Hilltopper red zone
X West Liberty's 23 points allowed in its first three games are the best defensive start to a season in nearly 40 years. The 1974 Hilltoppers held their first three foes to just 16 points