In week 5 of the football season, the three main predicted powerhouses of the Big South Conference stepped to the forefront last weekend as Monmouth, N.C. A&T, and Kennesaw State dominated their opponents in resounding fashion.
Kennesaw got out of the blocks early against Jacksonville State building a 17-0 halftime lead and then coasted the rest of the way behind a swarming defense in the 31-6 win. The Owls triple option attack accounted for 247 yards on the ground. Owls quarterback Xavier Shepherd finished as the game’s leading rusher, with 124 yards on 32 carries and three touchdowns.
N. C. A&T notched its first ever Big South victory as they displayed a very balanced offensive effort, 224 rushing yards and 222 passing yards, in its 42-14 drubbing of Robert Morris. Senior running back Jah-Maine Martin, posted his first 100-yard game of the season as he rushed for 105 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries while quarterback Jalen Fowler went for 202 yards and 2 touchdowns on 15-20 passing attempts.
Monmouth put their shocking blowout loss to Holy Cross from the week before in their rear view mirror as they destroyed Gardner-Webb 54-17. Big South Preseason Offensive Player of the Year Juwan Farri rushed for 139 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries and sophomore quarterback Tony Muskett completed 18-of-31 passes for 289 yards and four touchdowns.
It was a case of two very different halves as North Alabama played flawless football in the first against Campbell jumping out to a to commanding 24-7 halftime lead. However four straight Lion turnovers to begin the second and the Camels capitalized on all of them resulting in a 28-point swing in CU’s 48-31 win. UNA’s defense didn’t fair much better in the second half collapse giving up 517 yards in the loss.
Norfolk State overcame a late 10-point deficit and then forced overtime before nailing down a wild 47-44 shootout victory over Hampton in the annual “Battle of the Bay” in Hampton, Va. NSU’s do everything quarterback Juwan Carter showed why he’s the best the MEAC has to offer accounting for 5 touchdowns going for 294 yards through the air for two scores and rushing for 92 more and 3 more TDs.
Hampton signal caller Jett Duffey had his bet a\game of the year going 22-44 for 370 yards and 4 TDs but the porous Pirate defense ultimately proved to be Hampton’s undoing giving up 30 points plus 310 yards in total offense in the second half.
The upcoming Saturday should go a long way in setting up a mad dash for championship contenders in the second half of the season with some important match-ups on tap.
Kennesaw State (3-1, 0-0) travels up to Hampton (2-2,0-0) while North Alabama (0-5, 0-1) will meet North Carolina A&T (2-2, 1-0) in the first ever contest between the two programs. It will be homecoming at Robert Morris (1-2, 0-1) as Charleston Southern comes calling and Campbell (2-2, 1-0) will travel to Boiling Springs to take on Gardner-Webb (2-3, 0-1). Monmouth (3-2, 2-0) finishes out its nonconference schedule as unbeaten Ivy League member Princeton (3-0) invades Monmouth (3-2, 2-0).
The Big South TV Schedule for 10-09-21
1:00 PM North Alabama @ North Carolina A&T (ESPN+, Nexstar)
1:00 PM Princeton @ Monmouth (ESPN+)
2:00 PM Kennesaw State @ Hampton (ESPN 3)
3:00 PM Charleston Southern @ Robert Morris (ESPN+)
6:00 PM Campbell @ Gardner-Webb (ESPN+)
The North Alabama Lions are closing out their 4-year mandatory probationary period in their transition from D-II to the Division One. UNA was a perennial powerhouse in the D-II ranks for many years but the transference of that success as yet to manifest itself on the FCS level.
Coach Chris Willis was part of the staff that led UNA to 12 playoff appearances and seven conference championships in his 15 years before taking over the helm in 2016. After starting in 2018 with a 7-3 record in their first year of FCS competition, UNA then dropped to 4-7 in 2019 and 3-4 in their only Big South season. Covid limited UNA to a 4-game fall schedule in 2020 packed with nationally ranked FBS programs going 0-4.
If the term “snake bit” were to be included in Webster’s then the definition would surely be this year’s UNA football team. The Lions have not just a turnover bug this season but an epidemic suffering 11 takeaways that have resulted in 10 touchdowns for their opposition. In each of their five games except one, UNA has held leads at halftime but somehow self destructed under a avalanche of second half turnovers and missed assignments.
Still the Lions have a potentially formidable offensive arsenal if their injury situation can be overcome at the quarterback position. Transfer Jaylen Gibson started the first two games before going down with an injury. Then senior Blake Dever stepped in and put together some creditable numbers with a 63 percent completion rate but he too then fell to injury against Nicholls State. So last week sophomore Rhett Files (6-4,235) got the call and threw for a career best 378 yards and 3 TDs on 30-45 passing against Campbell.
Files is expected to get the call again against A&T and he’ll have some big targets to throw to in NFL prospect Dexter Boykin (6-3,208), and Cortez Hall (6-1,214). This duo have accounted for nearly 70 percent of all UNA receptions and scoring through the air.
UNA hasn’t been particularly consistent in their ground game averaging just 99 yards per game. The running backs of note is Parker Driggers (6-0, 190) and Ja’won Howell. The Lions will need to improve in this area very quickly behind a gigantic line led by seniors Blake Walker (6-8,315), Connor Robbins (6-9,310) and junior Joe Maxwell (6-6,303) as they begin to get into the real meat of the conference schedule.
On defense the Lions have been susceptible to the run giving up over 200 yards per game this season. And while the Lions haven’t been great against the run they still play physical and are athletic up front with the very active end Wallace Cowins (6-4,240), Terrell Townsend (6-4, 268) and nose tackle Micah Bland (6-2,300).
The secondary has given up few big plays in the second half in recent weeks. Kyree Fields (6-1,200) and Evan Jones (6-2,190) are a pair of rangy safeties that will attack off the edge with frequency in the blitz packages.
I never liked the idea of calling this week’s contest with North Alabama a “Trap Game” because this is a unknown opponent in a new conference and every game from here on out is essentially a playoff game for A&T as we approach the midway point of the 2021 season. Every game the Aggies play from here on out is a new adventure and the bulls eye is squarely on the back of the new guy in the neighborhood.
UNA is not devoid of talent by any stretch. They have some real talented players on their roster especially at the receiver and defensive end spots. Offensively, they will try to stretch the field because despite their size along their offensive front running the football has not been their forte. The Lions can be explosive in the air and they have tended to score points in streaks. What they haven’t been able to do is sustain offensive momentum for long periods of time over the course of 60 minutes.
Much of the same can be said about the other side of the ball as they have been a bend but don’t break type of defense and at first glance they have played well but no team, no matter how good they be, can overcome the constant barrage of turnovers in their own end like the Lions have experienced this season. One would think that the now almost weekly story of blowing big leads certainly has to have some kind of accumulating affect on the psyche of a team when something now goes awry in crucial situations.
I strongly suspect that the UNA coaching staff has earmarked this weekend’s game for their team to play a full four quarters of error free football so expect them to go all out in trying to secure their first win of the season. Don’t fall for the old winless record routine. That’s fool’s gold at best. UNA simply wasn’t that far away from being 4-1 instead of 0-5 at this midway point of season.
For A&T this week is about continuing to improve on the execution of a very balanced offense, the most balanced in the Big South so far at just about an equal 50-50 run-pass ratio. The Aggie defense is quickly re-establishing a lot of the character of traditional “Blue Death” defenses in the past by now holding its last two opponents, NCCU and RMU to 52 and 54 yards respectively. The challenge this week is to keep up the snuff out mentality against the run game and to keep the UNA big play oriented passing game in check and get its share of turnovers.
Best way to do that is to dominate the line of scrimmage and run the football and shorten the game as the best defense against any passing team is to limit their number of possessions. And that is something that A&T does pretty dog gone well.
N.C. A&T – 42
UNA – 20