It was a Saturday full of surprises in the MEAC last week as two very clear leaders emerged from an early logjam at the top of standings setting up a titanic battle this week for sole possession of first place.
Last week winless South Carolina State was supposed to be easy pickings for a resurgent Morgan State squad fresh off its unlikely upset of nationally ranked N.C. A&T just a couple of weeks ago. Instead the Bulldogs ruined Morgan State’s homecoming and got its first win the season by pulling off a 21-18 upset of the Bears thanks to quarterback Tyrece Nix’s 23-yard TD pass to running back Omar Cummings with 1:10 left in the game.
N.C. Central waged an all out shoot out with Howard in Durham last week. Defense was non existent on either side all day long as these two teams combined for a ridiculous 1,167 yards in total offense and 75 points as NCCU stopped a late Bison drive with a last second interception in the end zone to upset heavily favored Howard 40-35. Eagle quarterback Chauncey Caldwell perhaps regained his starting job permanently by accounting for 485 of NCCU’s 549 yards of total offense.
Florida A&M was locked in a duel with Norfolk State in what was billed going in as showdown between two great offenses. It was anything but as this game was a defensive struggle from the outset and the game was marred on both sides with 205 yards in penalties . However, the Rattlers had just enough juice to put together two 4th quarter TDs to slip past the Spartans 17-0 for the homecoming victory.
Savannah State may be leaving the MEAC at the end of this season but they struck a blow for the conference by knocking off Big South member Charleston Southern 23-3 at home. The key to the win was the Tigers ability to take full advantage of three big turnovers by CSU deep in their own end and converting them into quick TDs while their defense did the rest by holding the Bucs to just 129 yards in total offense.
Bethune-Cookman again rolled up some impressive offensive numbers in their 41-27 homecoming win over Mississippi Valley State. The Delta Devils jumped out to a 14-0 lead early in the contest before Wildcats shifted into high gear scoring 27 second quarter points to take control just before halftime.
This week all eyes will be on Greensboro, N.C. as the red hot Florida A&M Rattlers (4-2, 3-0) will be seeking to take sole possession of first place in MEAC since 2010 when then face off against defending champion and 10th-ranked North Carolina A&T (5-1, 2-0) for 1 p.m. kickoff in what should be the game of year with the winner seizing the inside track to the 2018 MEAC title.
Bethune-Cookman (3-3, 1-1) hopes to keep pace just a game behind the leaders as they will travel to Orangeburg, SC to face dangerous South Carolina State (1-4, 1-2) at 2 p.m. The same can be said for Morgan State (1-4, 0-1) when they head south to Savannah State (1-4, 0-2) for a 6 p.m. start.
Delaware State (0-5, 0-2) will be hoping to catch a disraught Howard (1-3, 1-1) still reeling from last week’s upset loss to North Carolina Central. Game time is set for 1 p.m.
NCCU and Norfolk State both have a bye week off before they face each in Norfolk next weekend.
Florida A&M is beaming with a lot of confidence and renewed vigor these days under first year head coach Willie Simmons who took over the program after a successful stints as head coach a Prairie View A&M and was the offensive coordinator for Alcorn when the Braves made it to the inaugural Celebration Bowl in 2015 as the SWAC representative.
Simmons has once again energized the Rattlers faithful by getting back on solid ground with three straight victories after dropping an inexplicable loss to floundering Jackson State at home and a lopsided road loss to FBS Troy State. The big difference in this FAMU team and those of the last few years is that the Rattlers are emphasizing defense first.
There’s a lot of experience on the FAMU defense and they have been tough against the run led by linebackers Jibreel Hazly (6-2, 227, So.) and Elijah Miller (6-1, 215, Jr.).
The interior of the defensive line is centered around big Keenan Anderson (6-6, 380, Jr.), Melvin Bracy (6-4, 265, Sr.) , Zach Browning (6-2, 275, Sr.) and Calvin Darnell (6-5, 255, Sr.). The secondary is talented and experienced with seniors Orlando McKinley (5-8, 175, Jr.) and Antonio Miller (6-1, 205), along with freshman Herman Jackson (5-11,175).
Quarterback Ryan Stanley (6-3, 210, Jr.) has been steady and consistent in the Rattlers new offense as his early statistics bear out. Stanley has hit on 79-122 attempts for 1083 yards and 8 TDs with just four interceptions. FAMU has a solid group of quick receivers anchored by a fine trio of speedsters in Chad Hunter (6-0, 180, So.) , Xavier Smith (5-10,165, R-Fr.), and Marcus Williams (6-0,185, R-Jr.).
The running backs for the Rattlers are dangerous especially in open space. Deshawn Smith (5-9, 195, 290 yds.) and Bishop Bennett (5-7, 175, So., 277 yds.) are the speed guys while senior Devin Bowers (6-0, 175, ), who has been slowed by injuries, is the workhorse in the backfield. Opening holes for them will be the responsibility of Patrick Dalton (6-6, 320, Sr.) , Joshua Addison (6-4, 305, Sr.), and Miles Rouse (6-4, 290, Sr.).
The kicking game is in very good hands with place kicker Yahia Aly who has gone 17-17 on PATS and 9-12 on field goals so far with his longest coming from 43 yards out.
Hurricane Michael left a trail of destruction along the Florida Panhandle and disrupted much of the southeast in the middle of the week but it wasn’t strong enough stop this Saturday afternoon’s marquee match up between N.C. A&T and Florida A&M to see who will be in the driver’s seat at the midway point of the 2018 MEAC championship race.
There’s been a lot of good natured back and forth on social media this week between the fan bases but it started way back in the summer between a few of the players from both schools. A&T has pretty much dominated the Rattlers since 2012 with five of the six wins decided by at least 14 points of better. However, FAMU is under a new head man in Willie Simmons and he has the Rattlers in the best shape they’ve been in nearly a decade.
What A&T will see out of FAMU first and foremost will be a rejuvenated defense that likes to swarm to the ball and exert a lot of pressure off the edges. Although not the biggest defense the Aggies will face FAMU will bring above average speed to the table and use it in much the same way A&T is known to do against their opponents.
If the Aggies are curious about what to expect from the Rattler offense they won’t have to look very hard than the game film from their 2015 Celebration win against Alcorn State. Even though Willie Simmons had left the year before as the offensive coordinator for Alcorn (2012-2014) to take over at Prairie View, the Braves continued that same philosophy in their bowl run as does FAMU today running the same identical offense.
FAMU is coming into this game with some pent up frustration they feel from A&T’s ascension to not only to the top of HBCU football but becoming now a weekly regular in the FCS Top 15. For decades under Hall of Famer Jake Gaither and more recently in the 1990’s and 2000’s under Billy Joe, the Rattlers were both the darlings and a true terror to be feared on the gridiron.
Through a series of serious missteps and poor choices soon regulated FAMU to also ran status through much of this decade but the off season hiring of Simmons and this season’s early success has the folks in Tallahassee all geedy about a quick return to the top of the MEAC. They now feel its their time to resume their old seat at the top. it’s not quirte that simple. Now beating A&T would go a long way in moving them along toward that goal but that is a lot easier said than done. If anyone thinks that is will be NCCU style stroll in the park think again. This is going to be a war.
The Aggies will need to stop the big play against FAMU. The Rattlers are not a grind it out team. That’s not what they do. They prefer to isolate and get defenses into one on one match ups in space so they can go over the top much like they did against NCCU two weeks ago. FAMU’s aggressive defense will certainly pose a challenge for A&T’s more deliberate style but that overly aggressive trait can be used against them with a steady mixture of run and pass to keep them off balance while slowing their blitz packages at the same time.
The modern day football fan pretty much only pays attention to the results of the previous week or two and rarely looks at the entire body of work. A&T is a team that plays big on the big stage. The Aggies are a battled hardened group that has been built from scratch over time and proving their worth by doing what folks said couldn’t be done – an compete against and beat the best both inside and outside the conference not by one time chance but win consistently, year in and year out in today’s college football landscape. That means a great deal in big statement games like this one.
This is uncharted territory for the Rattlers and given the odd series of events surrounding the weather and interruption during the week leading up to this game, you have to wonder how it will affect them. We pretty much know now what to expect from A&T when faced with these types of games. The Aggies are creatures of habit and history tends to repeat itself more often than not.
Make no mistake FAMU is a very good football team with a very solid quarterback with some quality players but A&T has proven itself the more complete team against better competition at this point with the ability to adjust and adapt to what ever role it finds necessary to play in order to win. It will be a roller coaster for a good little while but the Aggies should find their groove in time to finally pull away down the stretch from a tough FAMU squad.
N.C. A&T – 30
FAMU – 17