Defense stands tall, offense rallies late in football's season-opening victory at Shepherd

Photo By Zoie Fisher
Photo By Zoie Fisher

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. Va. – The Ohio Dominican football team forced four turnovers on defense and the offense rallied late to give the Panthers a key season-opening win at Super Region One opponent Shepherd Saturday afternoon, 24-21.

Trailing 14-0 just over 15 minutes in, the Panthers went on to outscore the Rams (0-1) 24-7 the rest of the way to win their season opener for the second straight season. ODU shutout Shepherd 14-0 in the fourth quarter to complete the comeback.

The fourth forced turnover of the game for the Panther defense came with 2:37 left to play, as junior Jayden Davis (Springfield, Ohio) forced a fumble and classmate Dauson Dales (Defiance, Ohio) recovered on the SU 38-yard line. Trailing by five points, sophomore quarterback Evan Ernst (Mason, Ohio) led the offense down the field, finding junior Devanaire Conliffe (Willoughby, Ohio) for a three-yard touchdown to give ODU its first lead of the game. After a two-point conversion, ODU led 24-21 with 1:07 remaining.

Shepherd though, used seven plays to cover 50 yards and get into ODU territory with seven seconds remaining. On the final play, the Black & Gold pressured the Rams quarterback who tossed an incompletion short of the goal line as the clock struck zero.

The last time the Panthers posted a game-winning touchdown drive in the final three minutes came in 2014, a 28-24 triumph at nationally-ranked Grand Valley State.

Ernst, who led the nation in completion percentage last season, connected on 31-of-39 passes for 273 yards and two touchdowns. On the receiving end of both scoring tosses was Conliffe, who finished with three receptions and a team-high 96 yards.

Senior David Turner (Fort Wayne, Ind.) caught a team-best 10 passes, while classmate Blake Skuratowicz (Lewis Center, Ohio) hauled in a career-high six receptions. Seniors Cedric Washington (Knoxville, Tenn.) and EJ Colson (Middletown, Ohio) each hauled in five-plus passes as well.

Defensively, Dales led the way for ODU with 10 total tackles, including eight solo stops. Senior Gus Dimmerling (Perrysburg, Ohio) recovered a fumble and added eight tackles, while Davis and senior Chris Green (Toledo, Ohio) each pitched in with seven stops.

Senior Alessio Amato (Zanesville, Ohio) had a first quarter interception to go with five tackles. Amato now has six career interceptions. Sophomore Rich Jones (Columbus, Ohio) led the secondary with three pass break ups and was one of seven players with at least five stops in the contest. Sophomore Jaylin Garner (Shaker Heights, Ohio) joined the tackling group defensively with five tackles.

A slow start for the Panther offense, which saw them go three-and-out on three consecutive possessions, allowed the Rams to capture a 14-0 lead with 14:39 showing on the second quarter clock. ODU though, used an 18-play, 75-yard drive just before the intermission to find some rhythm on offense, as sophomore Kevin Laming (Powell, Ohio) got the Panthers on the board with a 33-yard field goal. The scoring drive nearly covered the final eight minutes of the first half.

Shepherd was nearing the goal line on its first drive of the second half but freshman Brady Blattner (Byesville, Ohio) forced a fumble into the end zone and Dimmerling jumped on possession to keep the Panthers in a 14-3 deficit with 8:03 remaining in the third.

Two plays later, Ernst faked a screen pass to the left before finding Conliffe open deep. The junior wideout took the ball the rest of the way for a career-long 77-yard touchdown, closing the gap to 14-10.

Shepherd answered on the next possession with a touchdown drive of their own to in front by 11, 21-10 with one quarter remaining. However, the game's third straight touchdown drive came by ODU, with junior running back Frederick Pitts V (Huber Heights, Ohio) finding a hole from five yards out. After a failed two-point conversion, the Panthers trailed 21-16.

Still trailing by five points later in the frame, the Panthers caught a break as sophomore Malik Moore (Toledo, Ohio) jumped on a muffed punt return by the Rams, giving ODU possession on the SU 26-yard line with just under six minutes to play. However, after one first down, the Black & Gold failed to convert on a fourth and five, handing possession back to Shepherd on its own 21-yard line with 4:20 remaining.

The Rams moved the ball 17 yards before the defensive heroics of Davis and Dales gave ODU possession for what would be the game-winning drive. ODU was among the Great Midwest leaders in turnover margin last season and with zero giveaways on offense, are now plus-four in the category one game into the 2019 campaign.

Turnovers played a key role in the final decision, as Shepherd outgained ODU 459-329 in total offensive yards. The Rams also had 24 first downs to the Panthers' 13.

Ohio Dominican will look to build off the momentum when they travel to face the top-ranked team in the country next weekend, Valdosta State (Ga.). The Panthers and defending national champions are scheduled for a 6:05 p.m. kickoff, with live streaming action available on ESPN3.

Contact: Tyler Jester