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Roughriders seek perfection and a title on Saturday night

When the West Virginia Roughriders first arrived in the Friendly City, head coach Mook Zimmerman had one goal for his team. He wanted it to be 1-0 every week. Mission accomplished.

The Roughriders have run roughshod over a dozen opponents in advancing to the American Arena Football championship game opposite the Carolina Energy (9-0) on Saturday night inside WesBanco Arena. The winner will receive the inaugural Jack Bowman Championship Trophy. Bowman served as the AAL president until passing away in April.

“That has been the goal. That has been the criteria. That has been the standard,” Zimmerman assessed of the season’s progression. “We wanted to go 1-0 thirteen times and these guys have bought into it and here we are at 12-0. We’re one (win) away from two (championships).”

The Roughriders, then based in Richmond, Va., won the 2017 Arena Pro Football (AFP) title by outscoring the Florida Tarpons, 74-61. They, however, dropped a 58-50 decision to the Atlanta Havoc in last season’s inaugural AAL championship encounter.

“A lot of people set goals or achievements at the beginning of the year, but not all reach them or accomplish them,” he stressed. “For us to be in this position to, not only be in this position, but hit every goal we have set is mind-blowing.

“It will be much better if we do achieve our ultimate goal … the goal that matters … and that’s to bring the AAL championship to the Ohio Valley.”

Kickoff is set for 7.

West Virginia posted a pair of blowouts in making the championship game. It routed New Jersey 57-13 in the Northern Conference semifinals before taking out West Michigan, 45-6, for the Northern Conference title. Meanwhile, the Energy made sure there would be a new champion when they ousted the Carolina Havoc, who re-located after winning in Atlanta the year before, 52-38.

“They were and they weren’t. It was No. 1 vs. No. 2 down there,” Zimmerman said when asked who was favored. “We really weren’t sure who we were going to so, them or the (Carolina) Havoc.

“They beat the Havoc pretty convincingly, so we’re not going to take them lightly in any capacity,” he noted. “We understand this team is coming up here to beat us. We’re going to prepare accordingly and make sure we know what they are going to try and do to us. We’ll do what we need to do from there.”

Zimmerman said the Energy’s type of play suits him just fine.

“They are a run-first type of team. They run the ball a lot more than you’ve been accustomed to seeing all year long,” he explained. “They do direct-snaps, read-options, counters, straight fullback dives … it’s a variety of different run plays.”

Zimmerman, who doubles as the defensive coordinator, likes that style of game.

“That plays right into one of our strengths,” he said with a smile. “With big Harold (Love) in the middle and (Shawn) Oakman, BJ (McBryde) and Larry (Ford) up front and Cole (Smelley) and (Brian) Price at the linebackers, you might want to stay away from those guys.

“We’re not necessarily worried about what they (Carolina) do, we still have to do our part.”

While the defense has been rock-solid, the offense has been improving from day one. It all starts at quarterback and former WVU signal-caller Jarrett Brown has continued to impress as the season wears on.

“Jarrett Brown was on a very short lease early on per management, which is me,” Zimmerman advised. “We knew if we played our cards right we could be in this position (playing for the title). I just wanted to make sure he was healthy and up to his full potential at this time.

“A lot of times you didn’t see Jarrett do things or use his athleticism because I would scream at him prior to the game. I would tell him to live to play the next down. Don’t run it! If you feel any pressure go down!, or if anybody has a hold of you, throw it away!

“Now the conversation is ‘there is no tomorrow. There might not be a next play. Jarrett is actually being Jarrett right now. Before he was being Mook.'”

Brown has passed for nearly 1,500 yards, 37 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Twice he has thrown for a half-a-dozen six-pointers in a game.

When Brown looks for targets, he has four sure-handed receivers. Larry Beavers Jr. is the leading wideout, while former WVU standout tailback Noel Devine has also been impressive. Connor Arlia, a former star at Weirton Madonna, has also come along nicely, as has Chad Walcott.

‘We will be 100 percent healthy,” Zimmerman allowed. “Of course we’ve got some guys with bumps and bruises after 12 weeks, but we’ve had two weeks to get everyone ready to go full capacity come Saturday night.”

Does the week off work in favor of the Roughriders or not?

“It actually helps. It’s good we had an extra week to get a couple of guys healthy and calmed down a little bit. The guys have been studying what Carolina likes to do,” he said. “We practiced last week. We didn’t take the entire week off, but at this point it’s pretty much just getting mental reps, trying to game-plan for what the opponent is going to try and do to you. This isn’t our first bye week, so we understand what we need to do.”

He hinted that there could be a couple of roster changes.

“We try to get better every week. We have a 30-man roster. This game will be the first game that you will see a lot of guys that we’ve had on reserve. We’ve had them on ice.”
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