Coach Roger Waialae’s Hilltoppers (2-1, 1-1) racked up more than 200 rushing yards while quarterback Dakota Conwell ran for more than 100 yards and fired three touchdown passes as West Liberty beat the Yellowjackets (1-2, 0-2) for the sixth straight year.
“We’re still a work in progress on offense but we’re making strides,” Waialae said. “We’re playing hard and we’re playing together a little better every week. We’re going to run into better teams down the road so we’ll have to play a lot better but we’re moving in the right direction.”
After showcasing a 50-50 balance between the pass and the run for the first two weeks, the Hilltoppers buckled the chinstraps a little tighter on Saturday as West Liberty’s first 14 offensive snaps were all running plays.
“When we put our game plan together this week, we didn’t have a pass play in the first 12-13 plays,” Waialae said. “I said coming into the season that we were committed to running the football because that’s one of Dakota’s strengths. Today was the first time we game-planned for him to run as much as he did and he made some nice plays.”
Neither team scored in the opening quarter but the Hilltoppers’ work on defense and special teams swung the field position battle in favor of the Black and Gold. Early in the second quarter, State had to punt on fourth-and-11 from its own 25. The short kick twisted toward the far sideline just in front of the West Liberty bench where a streaking Ben Rogers caught it in stride and outraced everyone to the end zone.
The 51-yard punt return TD gave the Hilltoppers a 7-0 lead and lit the fuse for a blowout win.
“Football is a team game so I don’t like to single out individuals,” Waialae said, “but that punt return really sparked us and it couldn’t have come from a better kid. Ben’s a senior who’s finally getting his chance to start for us this year. He’s never missed a practice. He comes out and works hard every day and never complains but best of all, he’s done all that while keeping a 3.98 GPA. All the sportswriters talk about stats these days but to me, that 3.98 GPA is the most important stat you can have. Ben does things the right way.”
Rogers’ return did seem to open the floodgates. Conwell made it 14-0 with a 24-yard strike to WR Anton McCallum at 5:43 of the second quarter before closing out the half with an impressive 2-minute drill.
Following a short Yellowjacket punt, West Liberty took over at the State 49 with only 36 seconds left. Conwell fired a 15-yard pass to WR Dylan Potts at the 34. After an incompletion, he found WR Roosevelt Morisset over the middle for 14 yards and another first down at the 20. On the very next snap, McCallum beat his man to the inside on a post route and Conwell put the ball right on the money for the touchdown just 14 seconds before the end of the half.
“Dakota got off to a little bit of a slow start throwing the ball today,” Waialae said, “which may have been my fault because we had so many runs in our package early on. Once he got into a rhythm, he started stepping up into the pocket and putting the ball in good spots for the receivers to make the catches and get some yards after the catch.”
State finally got on the board in the third quarter with a field goal and a 16-yard TD pass from QB Matt Kinnick to WR Dameon Garrett but an 18-yard TD pass from Conwell to Potts kept WLU comfortably in front, 28-10, heading into the fourth quarter. The Hilltoppers pushed it to 38-10 on a short Lukas Turley run and a Shawn Carl field goal before the Yellowjackets closed out the scoring with a late TD toss.
Conwell completed 9-of-15 passes for 135 yards and 3 TDs while leading all rushers with 18 carries for 103 yards as West Liberty ran the ball 51 times for 222 yards. Potts led the WLU receivers with 4 catches for 71 yards.
Kinnick completed 23-of-39 passes for 209 yards and 2 TDs but State had just 55 rushing yards on 30 carries. Garrett was the leading receiver with 5 catches for 73 yards.
The Hilltoppers hit the road next week for a noon kickoff at unbeaten Concord.