By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
BALTIMORE, MD. — The first time I ever cast eyes on the Norfolk State football team, it wasn’t a pretty sight.
I wouldn’t have thought then that I’d be watching the Spartans win a MEAC championship in person just eight years later, with a 47-14 victory over Morgan State Saturday afternoon at Hughes Stadium.
The Spartans were playing a television game and there was All-American linebacker Kevin Talley flying around, making plays seemingly by himself, even though he was sometimes being triple-teamed.
Talley set NCAA records for tackles in a season (195), single-game tackles (30) and single-season tackles-per-game (16.3), but he didn’t have a lot of help.
Norfolk State was arguably one of the worst teams in what was then called I-AA football. The Spartans were on their way to a 1-11 season in 2003 and the only reason they didn’t finish as bad in 2004 was that they only managed to schedule nine games in another one-win season.
But that was before Pete Adrian came to the rescue.
Known for developing players such as Rashean Mathis, the 2002 Buchanan Award winner and a Jacksonville Jaguar NFL All-Pro cornerback, during his days as Bethune-Cookman’s defensive coordinator, Adrian brought a new, tough attitude to Norfolk State.
In his first two years, Adrian led NSU to back-to-back 4-7 records and by 2007, I was watching from Alumni Stadium in Dover, DE. as his Spartans come within a few seconds of a MEAC championship in a heartbreaking 28-21 overtime loss to Delaware State.
I was back at Delaware State earlier this year when the Spartans picked up a 38-21 victory during part of a five-game winning streak that solidified NSU’s place atop the MEAC standings.
On Saturday, Adrian had his Spartan squad back where it had been in 2007, one win away from the first MEAC football championship in school history and one victory away from another historic first — Norfolk State’s first trip to the NCAA Division I Football playoffs.
Playing a scrappy Morgan State team that still had a shot at earning a share of the MEAC crown, Norfolk State overcame a pair of big plays by the Bears in the first half to forge a 20-14 lead.
A 53-yard scoring strike from Seth Higgins to Tyrone Hendrix and a 49-yard TD burst by Travis Davidson at the start and end of the first half belied the fact that NSU’s switching 3-3-5 and 3-4-4 defensive looks had totally confused Morgan State.
Led on defense by linebackers Onyemechi Anyaugo (11 tackles, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and one pass breakup) and Corwin Hammond (nine tackles, one fumble recovery) and Jamal Giddens (seven tackles, four tackles for loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles and a pass breakup), Norfolk State’s defense forced four turnovers and limited Morgan State to 241 yards.
Chris Walley had managed a 60-yard TD pass to Kelvin Lewis and a six-yard scoring toss to Joe Hawkins in the first period for NSU and strong-legged Ryan Estep had added a couple of field goals when the offense bogged down, but the Spartans looked like a team waiting to burst through something for most of the first half.
That moment finally came in the third period when NSU took advantage of Bear miscues to score 17 points in about four minutes.
Randy Maynes, who was held to six yards on five first-half carries, started the outburst with a 56-yard scamper for a touchdown to make it 27-14 just 17 seconds into the second half.
The Norfolk State defense stopped Morgan State with a three and out and Walley struck for a 48-yard completion to freshman Keith Johnson to set up Estep’s 28-yard field goal to extend the lead to 30-14.
On the ensuing kickoff, Tyrece Shepherd made an incredible special teams play, flying over a blocker to hit returnman Chris Flowers and force a fumble. NSU’s Marcell Coke picked up the bouncing ball and dashed to the one before being tackled.
Walley took just one play to convert the turnover into six points on a quarterback sneak and the Spartans were on their way to a championship victory with a 37-14 lead.
Estep added his fourth field goal of the day and Takeem Hedgeman completed the scoring with a two-yard touchdown blast in the fourth quarter.
And basking in the locker room afterwards was a very satisfied coach.
“I’m so proud of our players right now for working as hard as they have and making history like this,” Adrian said. “The chemistry on this team is great. They’ve been a special group to coach. All they talk about is winning, not about personal goals.”
The Spartans have the luxury of a bye on Saturday before seeing where they will play when the NCAA postseason begins. With teams such as Old Dominion, James Madison and Liberty among those closing in on at-large playoff bids, the Spartans should stay close to home for their next game.
But wherever Norfolk State plays, people will know that the program is light years from where it was before Adrian came to town.