MEC football: A lot at stake for UC, Concord
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Every game is important, as most coaches will attest, but Concord's Mountain East Conference visit to the University of Charleston on Saturday means a little more.
The winner of Saturday's 1 p.m. game at University of Charleston Stadium will stay in the race for the MEC championship, while the loser will be facing an uphill battle in the final three weeks of the season.
The Golden Eagles (4-3, 4-1 MEC) have games remaining at West Liberty, vs. Fairmont State and at Urbana. The Mountain Lions (5-2, 4-1) host UVa-Wise before a visit to Concord and a home game against ninth-ranked Shepherd closes out the season. Shepherd, the ninth-ranked team in the American Football Coaches' Association Poll, is the only unbeaten team in the MEC and already owns a 28-9 win over Charleston.
The Mountain Lions averaged 25.3 points per game, providing a challenge for the resurgent UC defense. Coach Pat Kirkland's Golden Eagles are giving up 24.1 points per game but have surrendered only 19 points and a total of 374 yards combined in wins over Glenville and W.Va. State.
In fact, against Shepherd three weeks ago, UC allowed the Rams to reach Golden Eagles' territory just three times in the first half before Shepherd scored on three of its first five possessions of the second half.
The UC defense spent a lot of the second half on the field with Shepherd holding the ball for 5:03 longer than the Golden Eagles in the final 30 minutes.
"Our defense got worn down," Kirkland said. "We got worn down and gave them really two long drives in a row. It was the lack of depth ... we didn't have it."
The issue for UC is depth on the offensive line, where injuries have piled up beginning before the season opener at Shaw.
The Golden Eagles have played without sophomore Zach Erb and freshman Michael Farhat, both of whom were lost for the season before it began. Starting offensive lineman Gaberiel Pou and sophomore Danilo Morales have missed the last two games.
Erb and Farhat earn a redshirt season, which should strengthen UC's line in 2014.
"Right now we're in the middle of a season, we're 4-1 in the conference and you want your best out there," Kirkland said. "We have to play a lot of young kids back and forth on the offensive line, which is one of the toughest positions to play as a youngster. This is the hardest hit we've been."
Running backs Leighton Settle and C.J. Stallworth, as well as all-purpose standout John Knox have helped push UC to 1,427 yards rushing this season while averaging 4.1 yards per carry. Quarterback Maurice Leak is also having the best season of his career, completing 87-of-143 passes for 725 yards with six touchdowns and six interceptions. He's completing 60.8 percent of his passes. As a sophomore, Leak threw for 1,295 yards - an average of 117.7 yards per game with eight TDs and 11 picks. During an injury-riddle junior season, Leak finished with three TDs and three interceptions, completed only 53.4 percent of his passes and averaged just 91.1 yards.
Coach Garin Justice's Mountain Lions are led by running back Cal Jones, who is averaging more than 20 carries per game, 4.4 yards per carry and 91.1 yards a contest.
The Concord passing game hasn't been nearly as efficient, with quarterback Brian Novak leading all MEC starters in interceptions with 14 and with the fewest touchdowns with three.
Concord's defense has carried the load, giving up an average of just 13.1 points, 113.3 yards rushing and a league-best 148.1 yards passing.
"It's going to be a very physical game on both ends," said Kirkland, whose team eked out a 17-14 win at Concord last year. "One of the key things we've been emphasizing, and I'm sure Concord is too, is that turnover battle when you have two good defenses."
Charleston is even in turnover margin with 18 takeaways and 18 turnovers. Concord has turned the ball over 24 times, but has only 19 takeaways.
The Golden Eagles will have just four days between games as UC travels to face West Liberty (3-4, 3-2) at Russek Field on Halloween night.
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Rich Stevens at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4837.