WEST LIBERTY, W.Va. – The West Liberty University football team kicks off the 2021 fall season Thursday night with its only non-conference game of the year, taking on Walsh (Ohio) in a 7 p.m. kickoff at West Family Stadium.
Both teams took advantage of the opportunity to play an abbreviated spring schedule after the traditional fall 2020 slate was wiped out by the pandemic. Coach Roger’s Waialae’s Hilltoppers posted a 2-2 mark in MEC play while the Cavaliers went 1-4 against G-MAC opposition.
Waialae was happy to see his players gain valuable game experience in the spring but says everybody is excited to get back to a full 11-game fall schedule this year.
“Somebody asked me about getting back to normal with games in the fall this year,” said Waialae, who is entering his 17th season at the WLU helm. “It’s really more like the new normal since we still have all the COVID precautions but it’s a lot closer to the old normal than playing in the spring.”
After averaging nearly 200 rushing yards a game over the final three games of the spring, the Hilltoppers return all five starters on the offensive line and will be looking to build on that success.
Don’t sleep on the WLU passing game after Jack Allison and Jamie Diven battled for the starting QB job all month. Both players had big games in the spring. Allison threw for four TDs and completed 13-of-16 passes in a 37-14 blowout of Glenville State while Diven had two TD tosses and completed nearly 70 percent of his throws in a 38-6 rout of Alderson Broaddus.
Allison will start on Thursday but Diven will likely also see action.
“Jack can make any throw,” Waialae said, “and he’s at his best when he works through his progressions and lets the game come to him like he did at Glenville. Jamie has shown the ability to play at a high level as well so I’m comfortable with either guy.”
While offense traditionally grabs much of the focus, Waialae also looks to his defense and special teams to be difference makers.
The veteran coach says his defensive line shapes up as the strength of the defense and one of the strongest position groups on the team. A young aggressive secondary has shown impressive ball skills during the preseason but Waialae couldn’t help but sound a note of caution.
“We’re excited about our defensive front and we like the speed and athleticism we’ve seen in the secondary,” Waialae said. “Of course, the main focus for the defensive backs early on is to just be sound. Don’t blow a coverage and give up an easy score. Make the other team earn everything they get.”
The subject of special teams puts a smile on Waialae’s face this season. Junior punter/placekicker Owen Rozanc leads all NCAA D2 kickers in career field goal percentage and led the MEC in punting during the spring. Trevor Hoosier returns from injury to handle the long-snapping duties and there’s a herd of proven speedsters available to fuel the return game.
“Owen is as good a kicker as we’ve ever had here,” Waialae said. “He’s a definite weapon and one of the best in the country. Our kicking game might be the strongest thing on our whole team.”
Like West Liberty, Walsh returns the bulk of its roster from the spring but there are enough new faces to warrant some wariness in the Hilltoppers’ film room. As Waialae pointed out, however, that’s nothing new for a season opener.
“One thing we know about Walsh is that they are an experienced bunch,” Waialae said. “They did bring in a transfer quarterback during the off-season but they still have a lot of guys back on offense and defense who were there when we played them a couple of years ago.
“We know what they’ve done in the past but we’re also sure they’ll alter something to fit their new personnel. It’s the first game of the season. You have to be ready to adjust on the fly.”