By Duane Cochran
Times West Virginian
What do you do when your top three running backs are out for your home opener with injuries?
If you’re Fairmont State’s football team you adapt, improvise and overcome.
The makeshift and battered Falcons avoided their first 0-4 start since 1935 here Saturday afternoon at Duvall-Rosier Field when they rallied for 25-20 victory over visiting West Liberty to improve to 1-3 overall and to 1-1 in the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
The loss snapped West Liberty’s two-game winning streak and dropped the Hilltoppers to 2-2 overall and 1-1 in the league.
With starting tailback Daniel Monroe (concussion) and backups Collin Alford (ankle) and Shad Alexander (concussion) all on the sidelines Saturday in street clothes Fairmont State offensive coordinator Bryan Fisher turned to junior quarterback Bobby Vega and his receivers for results. And Vega and company delivered.
The 6-2, 210-pound junior college transfer from Miami, Fla., threw a school-record 67 passes and completed 34 for 361 yards and three touchdowns to help lead FSU to its first win of the season.
“We pretty much put this offense in, in three days and for not having any more time to work with it I’d say all in all today it worked pretty well for us,” said Vega, who topped Bryan Harman’s school record for pass attempts in a game (58) by nine. “Coach put us in good positions and we made plays.
“We went on the ball all day today. We didn’t huddle. We wanted to see what they were giving us. We called a cadence and looked to the sidelines to see what coach saw and what I saw and we’d go from there. If they were blitzing we wanted to go at the blitz with the quick-passing game because we knew their safety wouldn’t have time to roll down and cover it.”
Vega did throw three interceptions in the game and was sacked a season-high five times, but his touchdown passes of 13 yards to Chris St. Hilaire, who finished with a career-high 12 receptions for 123 yards in the win, and five yards to Matt Wilmer helped Fairmont open an early 19-0 advantage before West Liberty rallied back with 20 unanswered points to take a 20-19 lead early in the second half.
Late in the third quarter Vega and receiver C.J. Goodwin combined to make the play of the game for the Falcons when they connected on an 83-yard touchdown pass which proved to be the game-winner for FSU. The 83-yard scoring strike ties Harman to Todd Anderson for the third-longest scoring pass in school history.
“I asked Bobby right before that if he trusted me because I felt like I could get something there,” said Goodwin, who joined FSU’s program in the spring after the coaching staff spotted him playing intramural basketball. “Bobby has a strong arm and the coaches were telling me I could make a play and make a difference. I appreciate their faith in me. I just stepped up to the plate there and tried to get us something because I knew a big play for us could help turn the tide.
“I actually double caught the ball and then I almost fell breaking away. I kept thinking please don’t fall, please don’t fall. The defender was closing in on me and I was thinking man I’ve got to get there. All of my family was here today and I wanted to do something special for them and our team. It was a big moment for me.”
With the lead, Fairmont turned the game over to its defense which, for the most part, had stymied West Liberty’s offense all day. The Hilltoppers’ first touchdown came after Vega threw a pick deep in his own end and West Liberty’s Marco Ricchetti returned it 13 yards to the FSU five. Another WLU score came on a 22-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Jovontae Johnson early in the third which gave the Hilltoppers a 20-19 lead.
The other West Liberty TD came when Isiah Moody capped a short, 39-yard scoring drive with a two-yard touchdown run on a fourth-and-goal play late in the first half.
Fairmont’s defense limited West Liberty to just 16 rushing yards and 161 total yards on 71 plays.
After the Falcons got their 25-20 lead, Fairmont’s defense held West Liberty to three straight three-and-out series before FSU safety Bryan Wilson picked off a pass at the Hilltoppers’ 42 on their next-to-last drive with 3:42 left to play.
West Liberty had one more opportunity for the win and drove from its own 29 to the FSU 27 with a minute remaining but a first-down sack of quarterback L.D. Crow by freshman linebacker Lance Fullwood, a spiked ball to kill the clock and two incompletions ended the Hilltoppers’ threat.
“The effort put forth today by our defense was amazing,” said FSU junior nose guard Anthony Domico, who recorded a safety, a sack and had three tackles for losses in the victory. “It seemed like everyone was giving everything they possibly could out there all day.
“(Chris) Kish helped us out a lot with his punting. He punted the ball well and kept them pinned back and when we needed to get stops today as a defense we did. The offense had the defense’s back today and the defense had the offense’s. We really came together and played as a team and got a win we had to have.”
“What can you say about the effort of our defense today? It was amazing,” said Vega. “They really got the job done.
“Offensively, we’ve got to do a better job of limiting our turnovers. I’m still trying to get comfortable in this offense. I know it, but I don’t know it like I’ve been playing in it for two or three years. It’s coming. As a team this was a step in the right direction for us. Now we need to take it and build on it.”
FSU returns to action Saturday when it visits the University of Charleston (3-1, 1-1) for a noon game at University of Charleston Stadium in state’s capital.