WASHINGTON, D.C. (www.howard-bison.com) - The stakes will be high when the Howard University Bison football team travels to Norfolk, VA to take on the Spartans of Norfolk State University at 4 pm in Dick Price Stadium. It is the conference opener for both teams and it will be televised on ESPN on a tape delayed basis at 10 pm. Joe Davis will handle the play by play and Howard alum and former All American quarterback Jay "Sky" Walker will provide color commentary.
Howard (1-1, 0-0 in the MEAC) is coming off a 26-0 loss to Rutgers of the Big East in which they were surprisingly competitive. The Spartans (2-0, 0-0 in the MEAC), who are ranked in some of the FCS national polls and is ranked Number 1 in several black college polls, posted an impressive 31-24 come-from-behind win over a tough Liberty University team on the road.
When the two teams last met in Washington, DC in what was then the conference opener for both teams, it was tough battle despite the final 23-9 advantage to Norfolk State, which went on to capture its first MEAC title since entering the conference. Following the game, Norfolk State head coach Pete Adrian had nothing but praise for the Bison in their first year under Gary Harrell. It proved to be almost prophetic as Howard went on have its best season in almost a decade.
"This league has become so competitive that there are no days off," said Coach Adrian, the 2011 MEAC Coach of the Year. "This game is no different. We know that Howard is a very physical team that is well coached and they play hard as we saw in the Rutgers game. Last week's win over Liberty is in the past. We have to focus on Howard because if we don't we will lose. We understand that."
Harrell had similar thoughts.
"They do a great job in all phases of the game," said Harrell. "Coach Adrian makes sure that the teams disciplined and fundamentally sound in their approach. This is going to be like a championship game for us. In this conference, if you lose a game this early in the season, it is very difficult to win a championship."
Much of the Bison game on offense is predicated on the run game that sets up the play action in the passing game. In sophomore Aquanius Freeman, freshman William Parker, junior Andra Williams and senior Jarren Brown, Howard has a lot of options. The rushing attack could improve exponentially with the return of senior Terrence Leffall, last season's leading rusher with almost 900 yards, who returns after missing the first two games.
Rutgers was able to neutralize the Bison rushing attack and it resulted in pressure on freshman quarterback Jamie Cunningham, who had problems with rhythm.
"Because we were not able to run the ball effectively against Rutgers, it created problems in the passing game because we could not go play action. Jamie had problems recognizing some of their fronts and it caused problems. In Norfolk State, you have a similar challenge. They have a very defensive line and are very solid in their secondary."
The Spartans rank Number 1 in several MEAC defensive statistical categories. The mainstays on defense are red-shirt senior linebacker Jamal Giddens, and red-shirt sophomore linebacker Lynden Trail and sophomore defensive back Keenan Lambert.
Defensively, the Bison have had problems stopping the run. Both Morehouse and Rutgers had measured success, especially on third down conversions. The Spartans will be sure to test the Bison rush defense by relying on their workhorse, red-shirt freshman running back Brendon Riddick, who rushed for 150 yards in the win over Liberty en route to being named the MEAC Rookie of the Week.
"Brendon was the player of the year in Richmond as a quarterback where they ran the spread offense," said Adrian. "We red shirted him and in the spring, he asked to be moved to the running back position. He is about 5-11, 200 pounds and is a strong runner who can also pass. He gives us a lot of options." Riddick is averaging almost eight years per carry.
It will be the task of Bison defense to try to slow down the Spartan attack. The unit should be much improved with the return of All American linebacker Keith Pough, who made his season debut last week. Howard has also gotten fine play from junior safety Julien David, junior middle linebacker Tabrian Resby and junior defensive end Toavan Sheats.
Pough, the team leader, was a bit rusty early on but he turned in another of his signature performances, finishing with two more tackles for losses, which puts him at 61 in his career, four shoy of the FCS career record.
"There is a reason he is the pre-season Player of the Year," said Adrian. "He is a great player and you have to account for him."
Added Harrell, "There is no question he is our team leader on and off the field. With him in the lineup, it adds a different dimension to our defense. We are happy to have him back out there."
For more information on Howard University Football, visit the official HU Athletics website at www.howard-bison.com.