Grambling, Alabama A&M Face Off for the Crown
Written by Roscoe Nance, Special to BlackAmericaWeb.com Friday, 09 December 2011 07:20
Grambling State and Alabama A&M will be in familiar surroundings when they meet in the SWAC Championship at Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama Saturday.
It will be the seventh appearance for Grambling since the title game's inception in 1999, the most for any conference member, and the sixth for Alabama A&M. The schools have faced each other for the crown three times, with Grambling holding a 3-0 edge. The G-Men, trying to win the title for an unprecedented 22nd time, are 5-1 in the championship, and Coach Doug Williams is a perfect 3-0. Alabama A&M is 1-4 in its five appearances.
The teams had eerily similar seasons en route to the championship game, stumbling early in the year before finishing strong. Alabama A&M (8-3 , 7-2 SWAC) got off to an 0-2 start before going on a seven-game winning streak and winding up with eight victories in their last eight contests to claim the East Division championship.
Grambling (7-4, 5-3 SWAC), the West Division champion, began the year 1-4. The G-Men bring a six-game winning streak into their showdown with Alabama A&M, which defeated them 20-14 at Grambling in September. It was the Bulldogs’ first win ever at Grambling, which leads the all-time series 16-5.
"We were both trying to find our identities, trying to find ways to win," Alabama A&M coach Anthony Jones says, reflecting on the teams' regular season matchup. "Now we both have tasted championship football, tasted what it's like to be on top."
Grambling, the preseason pick to win the SWAC title, was counted out of the championship race in most circles after its poor start. However, Jones wasn't among those saying last rites over the G-Men.
"Grambling was like we were at the beginning of the year," Jones says, "playing a lot of young guys and getting them acclimated to college football. I knew they'd be in the race."
Williams wasn't so sure after his G-Men bowed to Alabama A&M.
"It was a season of all seasons, considering where we started, 1-4," Williams says. "As Coach (Eddie) Robinson used to tell us, the credit goes to man in the arena. These guys didn't give up during those first five games. That is a testament to this football team and its character."
Grambling made its run to the championship game in an unconventional manner, relying on freshmen quarterback D.J. Williams – the coach’s son – and Frank Rivers. Both made big plays at crucial moments for the G-Men. Williams was the starter in the season-opener, lost his job and then regained it. He has passed for 1,002 yards and 13 touchdowns in 10 games. Rivers has thrown for 967 yards and 10 touchdowns in seven games.
The emergence of Mario Louis as a big-play receiver helped both quarterbacks. Louis averaged 21.3 yards – second highest in the conference – on 49 catches. He led the conference with 17 touchdown receptions.
But it was the running of Dawrence Roberts that really made the G-Men’s offense effective. Roberts didn’t play in two of Grambling's first three games, and he had just two carries for five yards in the game that he did play. Still, he is second in the SWAC in rushing yards, with 1,039, and leads the conference with 115.4 yards a game.
Coach Williams says Roberts is a deceptive runner who is more effective than it appears he should be, considering his 5-9, 175-pound frame.
"Dawrence doesn’t look like guy who got a thousand yards," he said. "I look at him every day in practice and wonder how he got a thousand yards. But what he has is a will. He wants to play, and he has shown he wants to play. I'm glad we were smart enough to play him."
Roberts had the two highest single-game rushing totals in the conference this season. He ran for 201 yards against Jackson State, and he 198 yards against Alabama A&M.
"We gave him his coming-out party," Jones said. "He ran like crazy."
Roberts rushed for at 135 yards or more in five times, including a 195-yard effort in the Bayou Classic, as the G-Men clinched the SWAC West Division title with a 36-12 win over arch-rival Southern.
Like Grambling, the hub of Alabama A&M’s offense is the running game. The Bulldogs' main weapon is running back Kaderius Lacey, the leading rusher in the SWAC, with 1,057 yards. Lacey surpassed the 100-yard mark five times this season. His best game came against Alabama State when he gained 189 yards in the Bulldogs 23-20 victory that put them in control of the SWAC East race. He had 178 yards in the Bulldogs' win against Grambling.
"Lacey will wear you down," Williams says. "Them big thighs, it’s hard to put your arms around him. He's not the easiest guy to tackle. He's like a little tank. He's like the guy up in Atlanta (who plays for the Falcons), one of them (Michael) Turner the Burner guys. You can’t go up there with an arm tackle."
DIVISION II PLAYOFFS
Wayne State (11-3) at Winston-Salem State (13-0): Winston-Salem is exactly where Coach Connell Maynor predicted his team would be four months ago. The Rams (12-0) are unbeaten, champions of the CIAA and in the semifinals of the Division II playoffs after receiving a first round bye, defeating California (Pa.) 35-28 in the second round and New Haven 27-7 in the quarterfinals last week.
Maynor made his prediction during the CIAA Media Day, even as the Rams were picked to finish second to Shaw. The basis for Maynor's prediction was the Rams' 8-2 record last season. They defeated a pair of FCS opponents, North Carolina A&T and North Carolina Central, and their two losses were by a total of nine points in games that Maynor figures his team should have won.
The Rams dropped a 40-35 decision to Saint Augustine's when they committed six turnovers. They lost to Shaw, the eventual CIAA champion, 31-27 in the last game of the season after leading 27-17 midway through the fourth quarter.
"We knew we would have a good football team and win every game if we didn’t turn the ball over," Maynor says. "We should have won every game last year, and I thought we would be just as good or better this year. So far, I've been right."
Maynor says the Rams' losses last season laid the foundation for their success this season.
"We got the big head because we were steamrolling," Maynor says. "We learned from that."
The Rams are in the Division II semifinals for the second time in school history. They also advanced to the semifinals in 1978. They are the first HBCU to reach the NCAA football semifinals at any level since 1999, when Youngstown State defeated Florida A&M 27-24 in the I-AA (now FCS) semis. A victory would make the Rams the first HBCU to reach an NCAA championship game in football since Florida A&M won the inaugural I-AA crown in 1978.
Maynor says the key to victory for the Rams against Wayne State will be avoiding turnovers and having balance between running and passing on offense and not giving up big plays on defense.
"Anytime you can be balanced, you keep the defense off guard," Maynor says. "Defenses try to make you one-dimensional."
The Rams average 221.4 yards a game rushing and 213.9 passing. They are No.24 in Division II, with 435.1 yards total offense a game.
Running back Nic Cooper leads the ground game with 131.7 yards a game and 1,712 yards total rushing yards, the most among HBCU runners.
Quarterback Kameron Smith has passed for 2,557 yards and 32 touchdowns.
Defensively, Winston-Salem is No. 2 in the nation when it comes to stopping the running, allowing just 75.1 yards a game; No. 3 in fewest points allowed, 15.6, and No. 4 in fewest total yards allowed, 282.3.
"We try to prevent big plays and bend, not break," said Maynor. "We have to get pressure on the quarterback and come up with turnovers."
Wayne State boasts two 1,000-yard rushers, Toney Davis (1,340) and All-American Josh Renel (1,262). The Warriors, who are in the Division II playoffs for the first time, are playing their third straight road game after being seeded sixth in their region. They defeated defended champion Minnesota-Duluth 31-25 to reach the semifinals.
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