Although it didn’t count as a regular-season win, third-year McKendree University coach Mike Babcock said he was pleased with nearly every phase of the game last week as the Bearcats outscored College of Faith 68-0 in an preseason game last week at Leemon Field.
But on Saturday the 2015 season begins for real for the Bearcats — 555 miles and a 9 1/2 hour bus ride away — in the sleepy little town of West Liberty, W. Va.
After closing 2014 on an upbeat note by winning its final five games, McKendree will face its first test of the season when it battles West Liberty University at West Family Stadium beginning at noon.
While the game will be the season opener for the Bearcats, West Liberty, a member of the rugged Mountain East Conference, scored an impressive 29-28 win over Concord (W.Va.) last week. Concord was ranked ninth in the preseason NCAA Division II poll.
“Nearly 600 miles, a 9 1/2 hour bus ride and playing a very good opponent to start the season, it’s going to be a real test for this football team,” Babcock said. “But you get better by playing good football teams and hopefully this game will make us a better football team for the rest of the season. They (West Liberty) beat a team which was ranked ninth in the nation, so that should tell you something right there,” Babcock said. “It’s also a test for us in that it’s a long way from home, we’re going to be riding in a bus for nearly 10 hours, getting up and playing on Saturday at noon, then getting back in the bus and coming home. I’m interested to see how we handle that as well.”
Babcock liked what he saw in the demolition of College of Faith last week by his band of Bearcats.
The Bearcats got a pair of touchdown passes from senior quarterback Isaac Fisher, a pair of punt returns from senior Cameron James, four field goals from kicker Steven O’Block and a flawless effort from its defense, which did not allow a first down.
“It was a good game in a couple of respects,” Babcock said. “For one, we were able to play a lot of kids. I thought our first string played well and we were also able to get a lot of reps for our second and third team players, which should help us down the road. Secondly, I was pleased with our special teams. Everybody knows that Cameron (James) is a special player and he showed that on Saturday. But I was very pleased with Steven (O’Block) and the way he kicked the football. He went 4-for-4 on field goals and looked good doing it and what I really liked were his kickoffs. He was able to put the ball in the end zone and if he can continue to do that, it will take a lot of pressure off our special teams.”
Like McKendree, West Liberty uses a diverse offense but features a run-first, throw-second type of philosophy.
The Hilltoppers trailed for much of the game against Concord, but got a late safety and clinched the upset on a last second field goal.
“And the kicker was a freshman. For a freshman kicker to step up in a big game like that shows me something,” Babcock said. “They (West Liberty) are a big football team up front and they’re going to come right at us. They’ll mix in a little play-action pass and they’ve got a kid in the backfield who is a lot like Cameron (James) in that he can hurt coming out of the backfield and on special teams. But they rely a lot on a ball-control, eat-up-the-clock type game plan. They ran 80 plays from scrimmage last week. We can’t let that happen on Saturday.”
McKendree returns home on Sept. 19 to the friendly confines of Leemon Stadium when the Bearcats will take on Northwood (Mich.) University at 1 p.m.
Contact reporter Dean Criddle at email@example.com or 618-239-2661.