Donal Ware breaks down and grades the HBCU teams duking it out on the field. ...
The HBCU sports season is officially on, and as host of the national sports talk radio show, From the Press Box to Press Row, I cover all the action on the games that showcase our Historically Black Colleges and Universities. HBCU GameTime will provide a weekly rundown on what’s happening on the field, and occasionally other sports-related topics. Let’s play!
The bulk of the HBCU football season has gone by in a blink.
There is still some football left to play as Saturday Tuskegee (10-1) and Elizabeth City State (7-4) will meet in the Pioneer Bowl, while Winston-Salem State (12-0) hosts Indiana (Pa.) (12-1) in the third round of the NCAA Division II Playoffs.
On December 8, Arkansas-Pine Bluff (9-2) and Jackson State (7-4) will meet in the SWAC championship game in Birmingham, AL.
The HBCU national champion is still up in the air although I would say Winston-Salem State is the frontrunner to repeat with Bethune-Cookman on its heels. A win in the SWAC championship game by UAPB puts them right near the top.
Speaking of Bethune-Cookman, the Wildcats fell 24-14 in the first round of the FCS playoffs last week, meaning the MEAC season is over. With that, it’s time to give final grades to all of the MEAC teams.
Overall, there seemed to be a lot of parity in the MEAC, but overall a down year for the conference.
The Wildcats are coming off another good regular season, but also another disappointing end in the playoffs. In head coach Brian Jenkins first year in 2010, playing a much weaker schedule, the Wildcats started the season off 10-0 before losing their last two games to Florida A&M and in the FCS Playoffs to New Hampshire. B-CU started a number of games off slow this year before coming back to win or ultimately falling and the same thing happened last week against Coastal Carolina. After sometimes playing three quarterbacks, Jenkins finally settled on former Florida Mr. Football Quentin Williams. Williams did a good job of not making mistakes as is indicated by his two interceptions in 142 pass attempts. He completed 60 percent of his passes for 1163 yards and 11 TDs and did a good job of running the ball gaining 445 yards and three touchdowns. He wasn’t exactly asked to go out and win games because the Wildcats possessed the conferences best rushing attack that averaged 244 yards per game, 10th best in FCS which was led by first team All-MEAC running back Isidore Jackson (191-1069-11), and Rodney Scott (142-632-5). The Wildcats were solid on defense led by first team All-MEAC linebacker Jarkevis Fields (103 tackles). The common denominator in all three of the Wildcats losses was that they could not stop the run as each opponent gained over 200 yards rushing. Final grade: B+
Delaware State (6-5, 5-3)
There are a couple of coaches that could have been considered for coach of the year honors and DSU head coach Kermit Blount is one. The Hornets were 3-8 last year and this year gained its first winning season since 2007 with essentially the same personnel from last year. The three conference losses were by seven points or less. The offense began with the play of MEAC Offensive Player of the Year quarterback Nick Elko, clearly the best quarterback in the league. He completed 63 percent of his passes for 2,828 yards, 15 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Elko had some serious weapons in first team All-MEAC receivers Travis Tarpley (86-1058-7) and Justin Wilson (66-806-6), who were third in the conference in both receptions and yards. One of the things that hurt the Hornets was their inability (perhaps by choice) to run the football as they averaged less than 100 yards rushing per game as a team. The defense was in the bottom half of the league giving up 386 yards per game. They were however very opportunistic defensively, ranking second in the league in turnover margin and forcing 31 turnovers, including six against FBS opponent Cincinnati. First team All-MEAC performers, safety Davon Moore and linebacker Ernest Adjei had close to 100 tackles each. Final grade: C+
Florida A&M (4-7, 4-4)
There were higher expectations for the Rattlers this season. But the season did not at all go the way Rattler nation thought it would. Two games before the end of the season, Joe Taylor announced he would retire at the end of the season. Four days later for reasons that are not 100 percent clear, he decided to retire immediately. Interim head coach Earl Holmes led the Rattlers to a 22-21 victory over North Carolina Central and a spirited effort in a 21-16 loss to Florida A&M. One of the bright spots from a numbers perspective for the Rattlers was quarterback Damien Fleming who completed 70 percent of his passes for 2,157 yards 16 touchdowns and five interceptions. His favorite target was first team All-MEAC wide receiver Travis Harvey (65-808-7). Final grade: D
Hampton (3-7, 3-5)
The Pirates came in with a strike against them, not being able to play for the conference championship due to low APR (Academic Progress Rate) scores. Hampton was in the bottom half of most categories in the league. One of the bright spots was running back Jeremy Schwartz a first team All-MEAC performer who rushed for 1,043 yards and 11 touchdowns in just nine games. The Pirates never established any consistency at the quarterback position. Final grade: F
Another outstanding year of coaching by Gary “The Flea” Harrell had Howard finishing in sole possession of second place in the conference. The Bison program had to deal with NCAA sanctions from a book voucher scandal that initially rocked Howard athletics spring sports and eventually rocked the football program. Because of that key players missed time during the season. One of the players affected most was quarterback Greg McGhee. Last year’s Boxtorow national Offensive Player of the Year never really got into a groove and completed just 52 percent of his passes for 1,038 yards with five touchdowns and five interceptions. He did however rush for 448 yards and five touchdowns. Running back Terence Leffall, a former walk-on, appeared not to be affected too much by the sanctions and in eight games rushed for 1,106 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Despite being ranked ninth in total defense, giving up 385.6 yards per game, the Bison had big time playmakers. Linebacker Keith Pough didn’t put up his usual dominating numbers because teams ran away from his side, but still managed MEAC Defensive Player of the Year honors after recording 72 tackles (44 solo), 10 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and four pass breakups. Safety Julien David led the team with 108 tackles and freshman defensive lineman Damon Gresham Chisholm, who at times was unblockable, led the team in tackles for loss (18) and sacks (five). Both were named to the All-MEAC first team. Two bad losses to North Carolina A&T and South Carolina State prevented the Bison from winning a share of the title. Final grade: B-
Morgan State (3-8, 2-6)
This is arguably the worst season for the Bears in the 11 seasons that Donald Hill-Eley had been the head coach. The Bears tend to get off to good starts then hit a brutal back stretch that typically leaves them a game or two under .500. This would have been the year to play the likes of Florida A&M and South Carolina State who were down this year. The Bears did lose a couple of close heart-breaking games including 24-20 to NCCU as the Eagles scored with 25 seconds remaining, and 21-20 to Howard with a missed extra point being the difference in the game. After scoring 34 points against FBS opponent Buffalo the offense looked promising. It was anything but. Quarterback play has been a problem for the Bears for many years now and was again this year. One of the bright spots on offense was second team All-MEAC running back Travis Davidson who rushed for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns. Defensively, freshman linebacker Elandon Roberts (107 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss) and Joseph Rank, who tied for the league lead in interceptions (5) were the bright spots. At press time, Morgan State has dismissed Hill-Eley as head coach and both sides are in negotiations to buyout the last year of Hill-Eley’s contract. Final grade: F
Norfolk State (4-7, 2-6)
The Spartans midterm grade was an F. To their credit, they ended the season the way they began the season with two straight wins. The problem is they lost seven straight in between. Coming into the season the Spartans were the defending conference champions and the personnel that was lost from last year was evident. The quarterback position really struggled and despite having a talented playmaker like wide receiver Xavier Boyce (58-623-4), he did not have the season he should have. The Spartans lost a lot from last year on defense but despite that still finished third in FCS in total defense (278.1), led by first team All-MEAC defensive end/linebacker Lynden Trail who led the team in tackles (70), tackles for loss (17) and tied for the lead in sacks (6). Final grade: D-
North Carolina A&T (7-4, 5-3)
At the beginning of the season, I said by the time the season is said and done, the Aggies would be a top three team in the conference. They finished in a tie for third place. It looked bleak however at one point as the Aggies gave away a 21-18 decision to Morgan State on national television early in the season then lost to Bethune-Cookman 28-12. They then preceded to win five of their last six games including four-straight to end the season. Defensively is where the Aggies excelled ranking second in all of FCS in total defense (252.9 yards per game) and led the MEAC in points allowed per game (14.0) First team All-MEAC cornerback D’Vonte Graham is a shutdown corner and recorded four interceptions and eight pass breakups. Offensively the Aggies running game was solid, led by their now all-time leading rusher in Mike Mayhew (198-848-7). Quarterback Kindle Lewis took a step backwards this year completing 56 percent of his passes for 1,359 yards with just three touchdowns and 11 interceptions as the passing game struggled. Final grade: B-
North Carolina Central (6-5, 5-3)
The one thing that Eagles head coach Henry Frazier has always done well is turn programs around. He made his alma mater Bowie State a winner. He turned around an abysmal Prairie View A&M program and led them to the SWAC title in 2009. In his first season with NCCU last year, the Eagles were 2-9. I don’t think anyone saw them having a winning season this year, which they did. The Eagles at one time were tied with Bethune-Cookman for first place in the MEAC before the Wildcats beat them 42-17 in Daytona Beach. After that, the Eagles lost two of their last three (Florida A&M and North Carolina A&T) by a total of six points to close the season out. Defense, big plays and special teams were keys in some of the success that the Eagles had. Defensive lineman Stephen Young was named to the All-MEAC first team after registering 15.5 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Defensive back Malik Cromartie led the league in pass breakups (11) and tied for the lead in interceptions (5). Arthur Goforth was also a first team selection and returned three kicks for touchdowns. Teams eventually punted away from Goforth as he returned five punts for 179 yards and two touchdowns and 18 kickoffs for 472 yards and one touchdown. Final grade: C+
Savannah State (1-10, 0-8)
Savannah State continues to struggle in terms of wins and losses as a Division I program. It promised to be a long season with the Tigers starting off with an 84-0 loss to then No. 19 Oklahoma State and a 55-0 loss to then No. 6 Florida State. The Tigers finished last in most categories with the exception of pass defense where they were pretty good finishing fourth and pass offense where they ranked sixth. Quarterback Antonio Bostick had some good moments and finished fourth in the conference in total offense (179.5). He threw for 1,629 yards, eight touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Final grade: F
South Carolina State (5-6, 4-4)
This was certainly a down year for the Bulldogs. The usually dependable running game of the Bulldogs only managed 133.5 yards per game. Quarterback Richard Cue had some good moments, but also had some not do good moments which resulted in him completing less than 50 percent of his passes for 1,819 yards, 11 touchdowns but 14 interceptions. The defense which also normally dominates was anything but giving up 363 yards a game. The Bulldogs did not have a single defensive player on the all-conference team and wide receiver Lennel Elmore and offensive lineman Tristen Bellamy made second team all-conference. To their credit they won three of their last four including a 41-23 victory over Howard. Final grade: C-