|Tuskegee makes a tackle in their win earlier this season over Albany State (photo by Tim Morse/Albany Herald)|
In the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, the conference's two biggest football names in Albany State and Tuskegee square off in Montgomery, Ala., to see who is the SIAC's best this year.
It's a chance for Albany State (7-2, 7-0 SIAC), the defending conference champs, to avenge their last lost this season, a 20-12 decision to Tuskegee in mid-September.
Since then, the Golden Rams have run off seven straight wins where the most they've given up has been 21 and that was to Fort Valley State last week. Albany State has the SIAC's top defense, giving up 229 yards and 14 points a game this season. They are led by junior linebacker Tavarius Washington who is third in the conference in tackles with 79 and had five sacks.
Jarvis Small,the SIAC's leading rusher, heads the offense with 1,129 yards and 12 touchdowns, while Frank Rivers has been steady at quarterback, throwing for more than 1,700 and nine touchdowns.
“We were hoping to get the opportunity to play one of them again,” Albany State head coach Mike White told the Albany Herald. “They’re a good football team and they’re playing well. They are putting up major points, and they’re confident, you can tell by what they’re doing offensively. The ball is going everywhere, deep, short, they’re running inside, running outside, it’s hard for teams to slow them down right now.”
Last week, Tuskegee (8-2, 7-0 SIAC) knocked off Miles 48-33, for their seventh win in a row. During that streak, they've averaged 43 points per game. The Golden Tigers have the SIAC's top offense as Hoderick Lowe and Michael Thornton have combined for nearly 1,200 yards and 20 touchdowns rushing. The Golden Tigers also boast the conference's second best defense that gives up only 18 points a game.
Last year Tuskegee missed out on this match-up when Miles surprised in Tuskegee and earning a berth in the SIAC title game.
"I think [his seniors] realize, we had this same opportunity last year and just blew it," Tuskegee head coach Willie Slater told the Montgomery Advertiser. "I don't think they want to blow the opportunity. We might not be good enough to beat them, but I think we're going to be ready to play."
CIAA Championship - Virginia State vs. Winston-Salem State
Last season, both Winston-Salem State and Virginia State were undefeated in Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association play at 7-0 as they headed into the CIAA Championship game. But a bizarre attack of WSSU quarterback Rudy Johnson by some Virginia State players during a pre-championship game luncheon led to the cancellation of the game everyone had been waiting for.
This year, the battle between the two teams will finally make it to the football field.
Again, both teams are 7-0 in conference play with Winston-Salem State sitting atop the national HBCU Division II football standings all year, with their only loss all season coming in a close battle with national power Valdosta State. Virginia State lost their first two games, non-conference matchups with California (Pa) and Lenoir Rhyne) but ran off eight consecutive wins to take the CIAA North title.
Virginia State will be without their starting quarterback, Tarian Ayers, who was suspended for a violation of teams rules for this game. Ayers was arrested and charged with DUI, speeding and underaged possesion of alcohol last Sunday. Ayers, the CIAA's second-ranked passer, has thrown for 1,827 yards and 14 touchdowns this season.
The Trojans have had the second-highest scoring offense in the CIAA this year, averaging 32 points a game. Backup quarterback Niko Johnson, who has only thrown three passes this year, will step in to run the offense. He will get help from dependable rusher Kavon Bellamy, who has run for 723 yards and ten touchdowns this season for the CIAA's third-best rushing offense. Earl Hughes has added nearly 500 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.
"Niko will be fine," VSU head coach Lattrell Scott told The Hopewell News Patriot. "Niko is an accomplished quarterback, but he just hasn't had the opportunity to play a lot because of our quarterback situation ... He's done a great job of being ready every week and he'll surprise people."
Virginia State also sports the CIAA's second-ranked defense, led by Brandon Robinson who had 61.5 tackles, four sacks, ten tackles for losses and two recovered fumbles this season. Darion Thomas leads a ball-hawking secondary with four interceptions this season, part of the CIAA-leading 14 picks the Trojans defense had in 2014.
"I couldn’t be more proud of this team this season," Scott told the Winston Salem Journal after last Saturday's win over Virginia Union. "We came into the season saying that we had unfinished business — and now we get another chance at the CIAA title."
While VSU is great on offense and defense, Winston-Salem State led the CIAA in both categories in 2014.
Quarterback Rudy Johnson, the player who was jumped in that attack last season, injured an ankle last week in their win over Fayetteville State but said he would play this week. But he has been part of a quarterback tandem this year with Phil Sims. Splitting time, they've combined for 2,668 yards and 23 touchdowns passing.
Maurice Lewis (633 yards, 7 touchdowns), Mustafa Green (456 yards, 6 TDs) and Tyree Massey (388 yards and 6 TDs) have provided a solid running game to go with the spectacular passing game.
On defense, the Rams interestingly don't have a tackler in the CIAA's top 20 as linebacker Terry Ross leads the team with 55 stops and two sacks. But Winston-Salem State has the nation's sixth-ranked defense, giving up only 274 yards to opposing teams as they've only allowed 12.6 points per game and have sacked quarterbacks 27 times this season.
While last year's altercation and cancellation (Virginia State was ruled ineligible for the championship giving Winston-Salem State the 2013 CIAA title) is still on the minds of both teams, both sides say the focus is on winning the game, the CIAA title and heading into the NCAA Division II playoffs.
"It's win or go home," WSSU head coach Kienus Boulware told the Winston Salem Journal. "We know that if our season is to continue, we can’t slip up in this game,” Boulware said. “And it would be a shame because we are very good shape and I think we are set up to make a run (in the playoffs)."
"We’re much better than we were in week one and week two," Scott said, according to the Winston Salem Journal. "We’re finishing games now. It’s been a really humble group, a very focused group. Because we all know how it can all be taken away from us in one second."