By Donal Ware
College Sports Journal
The old saying goes to be the best you have to beat the best.
The Tennessee State Tigers did just that, defeating last week’s top HBCU football team Bethune-Cookman 21-14 in Nashville.
The Tigers are now the best.
The media and the coaches voted TSU No. 1 in both Boxtorow HBCU polls — it was unanimous among the coaches.
The Tigers were giving up over 400 yards of total offense coming into their matchup with the Wildcats and gave up just 287 yards to the Wildcats.
TSU will face another tough opponent as No. 5 Arkansas-Pine Bluff comes to Nashville for the Tigers’ homecoming.
The No. 5 ranking (on both polls) are the highest for the Golden Lions since Boxtorow began administering the media poll in 2007 and coaches poll in 2009.
UAPB is coming off an impressive 24-21 victory last Thursday over Alabama State on national television.
TSU isn’t the only unbeaten team in HBCU football.
The defending HBCU national champion Winston-Salem State Rams are off to a 4-0 start and will face Bowie State in Bowie, Md.
No. 2/2 Alabama A&M is also off to a 4-0 start and will host defending SWAC champion Grambling State in the Louis Crews Classic on Saturday in Huntsville, Ala.
Boxtorow National Game of the Week
Arkansas-Pine Bluff (3-1) vs. Tennessee State (4-0)
Typically for homecoming you bring in a team that you are pretty sure you can beat and everyone goes home happy.
Since former Washington Redskins linebacker Monte Coleman took over the program in 2008, the Golden Lions have never been an easy out.
0-2 in the SWAC, Prairie View A&M at 0-3, the uncertainty at Southern with the new coaching change and with Texas Southern ineligible for the championship game, the Golden Lions definitely have a legitimate shot at getting back to the championship.
While this game is not a conference game, it will go a long way in showing how good both teams really are.
The strength of the Golden Lions is on defense, where Coleman also serves as the defensive coordinator and opponents are averaging just 262 yards per game.
A lot of the success has to do with defensive end Brandon Thurmond, who through four games already has seven sacks and 10 tackles for loss.
The Golden Lions are also getting excellent play from linebackers Bill Ross and Jer-ryan Harris, the team’s leading tacklers who have 68 tackles between them.
The backfield is led by safety Xavier Lofton (28 tackles, three pass breakups) and David Watson (two interceptions).
Offensively, the Golden Lions present a truly balanced attack.
It begins with sophomore quarterback Ben Anderson, who himself averages 213 yards of total offense per game and makes up 58 percent of his team’s total offense.
Anderson is completing 56 percent of his passes for 723 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions and has rushed for another 131 yards and a score.
Ladarius Eckwood, Dezmond Beverly, and Thomas Winters are very capable receivers who have together caught 46 passes for 508 yards and all average at least 10.2 yards per reception.
Whereas the passing game averages 181 yards per game, the running game is just as valuable, averaging 186 yards per game.
The primary running back is Justin Billings (47-274-2) who averages 5.8 yards per carry.
In addition to Anderson getting it done on the ground, UAPB can also rely on Dennis Jenkins (42-256-1) and John Toney (18-97-1).
If the game came down to a field goal, kicker Tyler Strickland, who is 4-of-8 on the season, has made a 50-yarder.
Where the UAPB offense is balanced, the TSU offense is less balanced but more explosive. Running back Trabis Ward, the Boxtorow National Player of the Week, ran for 153 yards and two touchdowns against Bethune-Cookman.
The Tigers used more of a two-back set last year with Ward and Dante Thomas, Ward has shouldered much of the load this season, carrying the ball 98 times for 445 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 4.5 yards per carry.
If the former four-star recruit needs a breather, Telvin Hooks is not much of a drop off averaging six yards per carry himself
Sophomore quarterback Michael German has done exactly what head coach Rod Reed and the coaching staff has asked of him.
He is completing 62 percent of his passes for 975 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions. Two weeks ago against Austin Peay, he had a career day, completing 27-of-36 passes for 318 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Florida transfer tight end A.C. Leonard has been a pleasant surprise for the Tigers as he leads them in receiving yards (264) and is second in receptions (16).
Wide receiver Travis James (17 receptions) has also been German’s go to guy while Joe Brown (8-94) and Devin Wilson (7-99-2) have also been relied upon.
This will be a true test for the TSU offense as they have yet to face a defense the caliber of the Golden Lions.
Fort Valley State (3-1, 2-0) vs. Tuskegee (2-1, 1-0)
It seems as if Tuskegee, the all-time winningest program in HBCU football history, has been down the last couple of years.
In actuality, they were only down last year going 4-6, after going 9-2 in 2010, with no post-season berth.
One of the reasons it may seem as if TU is down is because the Golden Tigers have not won the SIAC championship since 2009 (they won the three previous years, too).
They are off to the good start this year partly because former University of Missouri star Derrick Washington has been the catalyst of the Golden Tigers offense rushing for 303 yards, 6.5 yards per carry and five touchdowns already this season.
Coach Willie Slater uses a two-quarterback system in Rashard Burkette and Justin Nared who have combined to complete just 39 percent of their passes with only one touchdown.
Slater feels that both are coming along and neither has thrown an interception this year.
Defensively, backs William Buford and Kevin Phinazee Jr. have been opportunistic and have two interceptions a piece.
While TU gives up 322 yards per game, they only allow opponents to score 14 points per game.
A point of emphasis needs to be put on the pass rush as the Golden Tigers have a total of three sacks.
Saturday they will have to get after Fort Valley State quarterback Antonio Henton.
While Hinton is only completing 43 percent of his passes and has thrown eight interceptions, he is always a threat to throw the ball deep to his big play wide receiver Christopher Slaughter, who is averaging 21.1 yards per reception and has four touchdowns.
Running back Seth Hill (6.1 yards per carry) leads a running game that averages 137.5 yards rushing per game.
Defensively, since giving up 561 yards in a 62-14 loss to Valdosta State three weeks ago the Wildcats have settled down and have given up an average of 241 yards in two wins over Clark-Atlanta and Benedict.
Linebacker Leron Furr has already recorded 11.5 tackles for loss and unlike TU the Wildcats secondary is very opportunistic as four players have two interceptions a piece.
Grambling State (0-3, 0-2) vs. Alabama A&M (4-0, 3-0)
At this point in the season, a matchup between an undefeated team and a winless team wouldn’t warrant game to watch considerations.
The Tigers started last season 1-4 including a loss to AAMU before winning eight-straight including the SWAC championship game, a victory over Alabama A&M 16-15 after spotting the Bulldogs a 15-0 lead.
Perhaps this is the game that can turn their season around. If TSU is the best team in football there is no doubt Alabama A&M is second.
Senior quarterback Deaunte Mason is clearly having his best season with the Bulldogs having completed 68 percent of his passes for 713 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions, while rushing for another 171 yards and six touchdowns.
He does a good job of spreading the ball around as 10 different receivers have caught passes.
Defenses have to pick their poison in stopping Mason and the passing attack or All-SWAC running back Kaderius Lacey.
Lacey is averaging 4.6 yards per carry on 285 yards rushing and two touchdowns. Brendon Johnson is a nice change of pace in the backfield averaging 4.8 yards per carry as well.
Head coach Anthony Jones had to replace a lot from last year’s defensive unit, but safety Vernon Marshall (32 tackles, four tackles for loss) has been sound.
The Bulldogs are going to have to do a better job of pressuring Grambling quarterback DJ Williams and as a team only have three sacks on the season.
Speaking of Williams he was injured in the loss to Alabama State and backup Frank Rivers came in and completed 14-of-19 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns.
Head coach Doug Williams insists that there is no quarterback controversy, that DJ is the starter.
All-SWAC running back Dawrence Roberts has struggled some this year with only 173 yards rushing though he is averaging 4.3 yards per carry.
The Grambling defense has struggled giving up 403 yards per game.
The Tigers are coming off a bye week and it was last year after their bye week when the reeled off eight-straight victories.
Click here for this week’s full slate of games.
HBCU Players of the Week
Tennessee State RB Trabis Ward, 5-10, 200, r-Jr., Ft. Lauderdale, Florida
Carried the ball 27 times for 153 yards and 2 TDs in the Tigers 21-14 victory over Bethune-Cookman.
Florida A&M QB Damien Fleming, 6-3, 200, Soph., Jacksonville, Florida
Completed 30-of-37 passes for 399 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs in the Rattlers 24-22 victory over Delaware State.
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.