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BASN’S HBCU KICKOFF WEEKEND
By Anthony McClean, Editor – in – Chief, Emeritus
NEW HAVEN (BASN): While there are a host of exciting contests this weekend that should more than get an HBCU football fan ready for the opening week, Thursday night will offer some fine appetizers as well.
So while you get the grill ready for the Labor Day Classic and the Battle of the Firsts on Saturday as well as the MEAC-SWAC Challenge and the John Merritt Classic on Sunday, we’ll take a quick peek at Thursday’s opening slate.
Two schools in particular — the Braves of Alcorn State and the Rams of Winston-Salem State — will open their respective seasons on the road. The defending SWAC champions will hit the ground running as they travel to Atlanta to meet the Yellow Jackets of Georgia Tech.
Senior quarterback John Gibbs Jr., the 2014 SWAC co-Offensive Player of the Year, is back to direct an offense which ranked second nationally among FCS teams in scoring (44 points per game), fifth in rushing (285.2 yards per game), eighth in total offense (493.1 ypg) and 19th in third down conversions (.447).
Evoking memories of the late Steve “Air” McNair, Gibbs threw for 2,842 yards and 21 scores with only seven interceptions in 324 passing attempts. Also a threat with his feet, he averaged 7.5 yards per carry while rushing for 1,006 yards and 11 scores.
Tabbed as favorites to repeat by the coaches of the SWAC, the Braves must replenish a unit which lost four of its top five tacklers after ranking No. 8 nationally in scoring defense (19.5 ppg) and rushing defense (108.7 ypg) and tied for eighth with 18 interceptions.
Senior linebacker Damon Watkins ranked second on the team in tackles with 79 while accounting for 10.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and a pair of interceptions. First-team All-SWAC honoree senior Darien Moody (34 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 7.5 sacks) gives the Braves a dominant force up front.
As for the Yellow Jackets, they return 13 starters and 62 lettermen from last year’s team that recorded the second 11-win campaign in the seven seasons under head coach Paul Johnson.
The Yellow Jackets are the preseason pick to win the ACC Coastal Division, coming off a season in which they won the Coastal and defeated Mississippi State to win the Capital One Orange Bowl.
Georgia Tech and Alcorn State have never met in football. The game, a 7:30 p.m. ET start, can be seen on ESPN3 and at WatchESPN.com.
WSSU LOOKS TO “BOUNCE” BACK
For most schools, a 9-2 record and a trip to the conference championship game is something that would be considered as a good, if not great season. However, that’s not the case for the football fortunes at Winston-Salem State, who’ve gone 54-8 overall the past five seasons.
The bitter taste of last year’s 21-17 loss to Virginia State in last year’s CIAA title game is still there for head coach Kienus Boulware and his Rams. The defeat snapped a 32-game conference winning streak dating back to 2010 and kept them out of the Division II playoffs for the first time in four years.
Selected by the coaches of the CIAA to win the Southern Division and the league title, WSSU begins the 2015 season in a very familiar place. The Rams will travel up the road to Grace P. Johnson Stadium and battle the Braves of UNC Pembroke.
It’s the fourth straight year that the Rams and Braves have met each other in the season opener. WSSU leads the all-time series 3-1 with the lone loss coming in the 2013 opener, a Thursday night game as well.
Despite an unsettled situation at quarterback and graduation losses (only five returning starters from 2014), Coach Boulware’s crew should still be in the mix for a possible return to the CIAA championship game and a postseason berth.
An influx of over a dozen FBS transfers as well as a promising recruiting class has Boulware feeling optimistic heading into Thursday’s opener. “On offense and defense, we still have guys that are trying to get acclimated to the system,” Boulware told the Winston-Salem Journal.
“We’ll need to cut down on our mistakes.”
As for the Braves, UNCP will return 11 starters off of last season’s 2-8 club that closed out the season with a 26-0 shutout of Limestone. One of the losses was a 38-7 defeat to WSSU in last year’s season opener at Bowman Gray Stadium
Two other HBCU games of note on Thursday evening has Fort Valley State traveling to Cleveland, Miss. to meet Delta State and Fairmont (W. Va.) State hosting West Virginia State.