By Donal Ware
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA — We are at the midway point of the season, yet there is still plenty of football left to be played. There are several teams that have played only one conference game up to this point.
On this week’s FROM THE PRESS BOX TO PRESS ROW (SiriusXM Channel 141, Friday 1-2 p.m. ET), I will be giving midterm grades to the teams who won conference championships last year – Grambling (SWAC), Miles (SIAC), Norfolk State (MEAC) and Winston-Salem State.
Grambling and Norfolk State are off to surprising starts, the Tigers 0-4 and the Spartans 2-3, 0-2 in the MEAC.
The likelihood of the Spartans defending their championship, even with plenty of season to play is slim to none. NSU lost a lot of talent from last year.
On top of losing to Howard and being blanked 14-0 by South Carolina State last week, the Spartans still have to play at its rival Hampton, at Bethune-Cookman, and at Morgan State. Not to mention they play a much-improved Delaware State team on Saturday.
The Tigers have more of a chance than the Spartans simply because if they win the rest of their games, they would represent the Western Division in the SWAC championship game in December.
While 0-3 in the conference, they have yet to play a divisional opponent. After a 1-4 start last year, Grambling won eight-straight, including the SWAC championship game.
With the way the Tigers are playing now and remaining games against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Southern, and Prairie View A&M in the State Fair Classic this weekend in Dallas, it is unlikely they will put that kind of run together this year.
Boxtorow National Game of the Week:
Florida A&M (2-3, 2-0) vs. Howard (3-1, 2-0)
It was an outside possibility that Florida A&M would have been atop the MEAC standings two weeks into the conference season, but who would have though the Howard Bison would be?
It has been some tough times in D.C., but that seems to be changing with second-year head coach Garry Harrell as the head man.
“The Flea,” as he’s known, is the all-time leading receiver in Howard history and was part of Howard’s Black college national championship team in 1993.
After falling to Rutgers 26-0 the week before, Howard defeated Norfolk State 37-36 in overtime in Norfolk, and obliterated Savannah State last week 56-9.
While quarterback Greg McGhee was expected to be the main weapon on offense, Howard’s run-in with the NCAA over student-athletes book vouchers has sidelined McGhee for a couple of games.
Enter Randy Liggins and Jamie Cunningham, who combined are completing 62 percent of their passes with four touchdowns and no interceptions and are managing the game and not making mistakes.
Similarly, at the running back position, Terrence Leffall who was to be Howard’s primary back also has had to sit out and Aquaniu Freeman and William Parker have filled in nicely with a combined 521 yards, 6.6 yards per carry and five touchdowns.
Where the offense is able to move the ball (334.5 total offensive yards per game) and score points (30.8), the defense is giving up 381 yards and 25 points per game.
All-American linebacker Keith Pough — ranked by many experts as the top linebacker in FCS and as a future NFL performer — is beginning to round into mid-season form (24 tackles four tackles for loss).
But defensive back Julien David and linebacker Tabrian Resby have also combined for 56 tackles.
The Bison only have one interception (David) on the season and will need to force FAMU’s Damien Fleming, the top quarterback in the MEAC, into turning the ball over.
Speaking of Fleming, he is completing 71 percent of his passes for 1,091 yards, 10 touchdowns and has thrown only three picks. He is also a threat to run the football, rushing for 171 yards this season.
Fleming's three leading receivers Travis Harvey, Lenworth Lennon and Admasen Felix have combined for 75 receptions and eight touchdowns.
What aids the Rattler passing attack is a solid running game led by James Owen (36-241-3) and Eddie Rocker (53-228).
Fumbles have been a point of contention for head coach Joe Taylor and fumbles at the most inopportune time probably cost the Rattlers a win against Tennessee State and the Rattlers’ 21-14 loss to Southern in the Atlanta Football Classic last week.
The defense’s bend-but-don’t-break philosophy hasn’t worked against the Rattlers too badly.
Take away the 662 yards of total offense amassed by Oklahoma, and the Rattlers would be giving up 371 yards per game.
But again, critical turnovers by the offense have put points against on the defense’s stats. Still, take away the 69 points scored by the Sooners and the Rattler defense is only giving up 20 points per game.
Despite the deficiencies on defense of both the Rattlers and the Bison, look for this to be a low-scoring affair in D.C.
Players of the Week
Alabama A&M Quarterback Deaunte Mason, 6-3, 209, Senior, Nashville, Tennessee
Completed 13-of-18 passes for 247 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs in the Bulldogs 39-18 victory over Grambling State.
Elizabeth City State DE Brad Davis, 6-2, 245, Senior, Charlotte, N.C.
Recorded six solo tackles, two sacks, five tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery in a 23-21 victory over Saint Augustine’s.
Editor's Note: Donal Ware is one of the leading voices in Historically Black College and University football. His Boxtorow.com website, popular articles for such publications as Jet magazine and regular radio shows for such networks as Sirius/XM have given him a high profile in the college and professional sports world. You can read more of his material at Boxtorow.com