Looking Back, Looking Ahead – Norfolk State


In the world of college football, the Colonial Athletic Association is one of the most-publicized FCS conferences.  Its success in the postseason along with victories over FBS teams has gained it notoriety.  In addition to coverage from the local media coverage, the league’s media day was broadcast live over ESPN3.

When the 2011 FCS playoff field was announced, Old Dominion was one of five teams from the CAA selected.  This weekend will be the first playoff game in the program’s brief three-year existence.  Its cross-town opponent, Norfolk State University, enters the playoffs as the champion of the Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference (MEAC).  Fans may not be as familiar with the Spartans, as MEAC teams generally receive less media coverage.  This article examines the Spartans’ season as they travel four miles across town and what fans can expect from them Saturday.

Norfolk State finished its season with a 9-2 record, including a 7-1 record in the MEAC.  It secured at least a tie of the MEAC title with its Week Ten win over Savanna State, and won the conference outright the next week by defeating Morgan State.  The conference title is its first in football since joining the MEAC in 1999.

The 2011 season started off with a bang, as the Spartans defeated former Central Intercollegiate Athletics Association (CIAA) rival Virginia State, 37-3.  Going on the road the following week, NSU took a 12-10 lead into the second half against West Virginia.  The Mountaineers would score 45 unanswered points in the second half, though, winning 55-12.

Sitting with a record of 1-1, the Spartans would win its next five in a stretch that included four MEAC foes and Charleston Southern of the Big South.  In Week Five they would defeat visiting the South Carolina State Bulldogs in the Fish Bowl Classic, 17-14.  The defense scored on a fumble return for a touchdown in the second quarter.  Holding a three-point lead late in the game, the defense held the Bulldogs out of the end zone from first-and-goal from the NSU 1; on fourth down, SCSU missed a field goal to seal the game for the Spartans.

Entering Week Eight with a 6-1 record, Norfolk State hosted 3-3 Bethune-Cookman on a Thursday night game broadcast on ESPNU.  The Wildcats would score two touchdowns from within the red zone and the defense registered five sacks against the Spartans, handing NSU its first conference loss, 14-6.  Norfolk State was outgained for the first time since its loss to West Virginia.  Norfolk State’s loss to Bethune-Cookman would prove to be its last of the regular season, as the team would finish with wins against North Carolina A&T, Savannah State and Morgan State.

The Spartans finished fifth in the MEAC in scoring at 27.8 points per game.  Senior quarterback Chris Walley finished with a phenomenal season, throwing 17 touchdowns against four interceptions with a 69% completion percentage.  Junior wideout Xavier Boyce led the team and was fourth in the MEAC in both receptions (65) and receiving yards (725).

While NSU was a middle-of-the-MEAC team in scoring points, it led the conference in scoring defense.  Opponents scored 170 points against the Spartans for a 15.5 average; 55 of those 170 points allowed came against West Virginia.  Norfolk State was also first in total defense, surrendering 266 yards per game.  The defense was led by senior linebacker Corwin Hammond, who was tied for fourth in the MEAC with 108 tackles.  Fellow linebacker Jamal Giddens was tied for fourth in the conference with 6.5 sacks.

As the Spartans take on the Monarchs, their chances for victory depend on the factors that made them successful in the regular season.

Offensive Line

Norfolk State started the same offensive line in ten of its eleven games this season.  Left tackle Kendall Noble, Center Michael Kay and Right Tackle Blake Matthews started every game in their respective positions.  Starting left guard Cameron Williams started all eleven games, though one start was at right guard.  Starting left guard Nico Washington started all games except the win against SCSU.

Spartan quarterbacks were sacked only 13 times all season; five of those sacks came against Bethune-Cookman. Additionally the team averaged 4.1 yards per rushing attempt.  The line will need to contain an Old Dominion defense that was second in the CAA in sacks (34) and allowed 3.2 rushing yards per attempt.

Defensive Pressure

Employing a 3-4 defensive scheme, five Spartan defenders recorded at least 9.5 tackles-for-loss: Hammond (13), Hasan Craig (12), Joey Christine (11.5), Terrence Pugh (9.5) and Jamal Giddens (9.5).  Overall the team posted 94 TFL’s, including a MEAC-best 34 sacks.  Norfolk State was plus-five in turnover margin for the season, and the defense will need to pressure the Monarchs into mistakes to slow their high-scoring offense.

Early-Scoring Dominance

For the season, the Spartans outscored its opponents 109-27 in the first quarter and 174-74 overall in the first half.  Norfolk State scored in double-digits in six of their eleven first-quarters this season, including 21 against Savannah State, 17 against Charleston Southern and 14 against Morgan State.

The necessity to score early and often is heightened considering the opponent.  Old Dominion led the CAA in scoring with almost 36 points per game.  The Monarchs themselves scored 222 points in the first halves of games this season.

The two teams facing off Saturday are fairly similar – both got outstanding play along both lines of scrimmage, both have efficient quarterbacks, and both have solid special teams.  Old Dominion blocked eight kicks during the regular season compared to six by Norfolk State.  It may take only one big play by either team to sway the outcome in their favor.  With the teams not set to play again until 2013, the winner will have bragging rights within the city for the next two seasons.