The West Liberty University football team steps out of Mountain East Conference play for the only time this season on Saturday when the Hilltoppers take on NCAA Division I FCS Duquesne. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at the Dukes’ Rooney Field overlooking downtown Pittsburgh.
Coach Roger Waialae’s West Liberty (2-2) team is licking its wounds, literally and figuratively, after last week’s 61-24 loss to an unbeaten Concord squad that just missed cracking this week’s national Top 25.
A series of special teams mistakes by the Black and Gold in the first half turned a one-possession game into an insurmountable 38-10 Mountain Lion halftime lead.
“With the quick swings you can have in scores and field position, special teams play can be a real turning point,” Waialae said. “Concord is a very good football team and when we gave up those big special teams plays in the first half, it was something we just couldn’t overcome.”
West Liberty was forced to go without several defensive and special teams standouts at Concord due to injury and that’s likely to be the case again on Saturday as the Hilltoppers hit the road for the second straight week but Waialae won’t use that as an excuse.
“Injuries are part of the game; they’re part of football,” the veteran coach said. “When starters go down, the younger guys behind them have to step up. What hurt so much last week was that our special teams, which had been our most consistent units over the first three weeks, lost that consistency and had a bad week against a very good team.”
The Hilltoppers face another tough test this week as Duquesne (2-2) boasts the leading FCS receiver in the nation along with a sophomore quarterback ranked among the top 10 nationally in passing yards and total offense. The Dukes’ only losses this year came at NCAA Division I FBS Buffalo (38-28) and No. 12-ranked Youngstown State (34-23). Duquesne led Buffalo in the fourth quarter and rolled up nearly 500 yards of total offense against Youngstown State.
“Obviously, when you go up against an (NCAA) Division I team, they’re going to have more talent and depth than most of the Division II teams you face,” Waialae said. “Duquesne is very good. They go about eight deep at wideout and their quarterback can really throw it. The tight end is good, their running backs can hurt you and they’re very solid on the offensive line. It doesn’t get any easier this week but it’s up to us to rise to the challenge.”
Despite the lop-sided final margin in last week’s game, there were some bright spots for the Black and Gold. Dakota Conwell passed for a career-best 275 yards and two TDs while running for another to pace a West Liberty attack that pushed past the 400-yard mark in total offense for the first time this year. Conwell’s 275 passing yards were the most by a WLU signalcaller in nearly two full seasons.
Freshman WR Max Kapron made the most of his first collegiate start with a game-high 79 receiving yards on 3 catches, including a 5-yard TD grab in the fourth quarter. Sophomore WR Anton McCallum had two catches for 73 yards, highlighted by a 46-yard touchdown catch, and senior WR Dylan Potts added a season-high 7 catches for 73 yards along with a 70-yard kickoff return that was wiped out by a penalty.
“Dakota is getting more and more comfortable every week,” Waialae said. “Those numbers came against a pretty good secondary. We gave Max Kapron a few more chances last week and he stepped up with a very nice job.
“Duquesne plays more of a pro-style defense than we’re used to seeing. There’s a lot of movement and you see a lot more tight ‘man’ defense in pass coverage with a number of stunts and blitzes up front trying to get to the quarterback. They have a lot of speed at safety so they’re able to play a little deeper and disguise some coverages. We’ll try to use that speed against them with some misdirection and cutbacks. We also want to see if our receivers can win some of those matchups on the perimeter and hit some deep balls.”
A Hilltopper defense that could be missing as many as three or four starters along with a handful of key reserves will have its hands full against the talented Duquesne passing attack.
Sophomore QB Dillon Buechel has completed 91-of-154 passes for 1,241 yards and 8 TDs with just 3 interceptions through the Dukes’ first four games. Junior WR Chris King has 30 catches for 513 yards to lead the nation but senior H-Back Devin Rahming has caught 25 balls for 312 yards and is a major threat on special teams with an 84-yard punt return TD in a 33-13 rout of Dayton.