Aug. 30, 2011
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. - A Preseason All-American safety, Andre Lyles has the skills of a high-stakes poker player. With a conference-high six interceptions in 2010, he's adept at picking up on opposing quarterback's tells.
It shouldn't have been a surprise then when he noticed the slightest of signs favoring his side as he sat with UNC Pembroke linebacker Fred Williams at the Two Rivers Classic news conference on Monday on the campus of Fayetteville State University.
"We let two of these get away already," Lyles said, nudging the Two Rivers Cup another inch or two closer to him. "But it looks like this one is a little closer to my side than his side."
Lyles (Sr., Ahoskie, N.C.) and the Broncos will get their chance to hoist the Two Rivera Cup for the first time when the two teams meet for the third time in the annual Two Rivers Classic, which will kick off the 2011 seasons for both the Braves and the Broncos at 6 p.m. on Saturday at Luther "Nick" Jeralds Stadium.
The two teams have opened the last two seasons with the Classic, a series built by Fayetteville State Director of Athletics Dr. Edward McLean. A huge success in its first two games, UNC Pembroke prevailed 41-24 in double-overtime in front of 8,321 spectators when the game was last played in Fayetteville, and then knocked off an undermanned Broncos team 39-0 a year ago as 6,429 fans witnessed a 7-0 game at halftime get away from the Broncos in the second half.
But Lyles and the Broncos, who return 13 starters in 2011, are back looking for a chance to etch their school's name on the Cup.
"We can't let this one get away this time," he said.
To pick up the elusive Two Rivers win, though, the Broncos will have to be wary of a Pembroke rushing attack that has shredded the defense in the first two meetings. Travis Daniels rushed for 214 yards and two touchdowns as a sophomore in 2009 while Rashon Kennedy, who graduated in 2010, went for 102 yards in 2009 and then for 115 yards in last season's matchup.
And with uncertainty at quarterback for the Braves - senior starter Cory Smith has graduated - the running game is even more paramount for both teams to monitor.
"You have to be concerned about their running game," said Fayetteville State coach Kenny Phillips. "They're a football team that sticks to what they do, and that's run the football. As a defensive football coach, that's one of the things you have to do. You have to stop the run, and if you don't, you open yourself up to where they have a choice as to what they want to do.
"Looking at Coach (Pete) Shinnick and what he's done the last two years, it hasn't changed very much. And I don't see them changing from the things they've done in the past because of the success they've had in the past. If it's working, you don't change it."
But for a team that started hot last season in winning four of its first five games, Pembroke struggled down the stretch in losing four of its last five. Daniels, who rushed for 47 yards and a score against FSU in 2010, never really got going during the season, finishing with just 343 yards rushing on the season.
Shinnick, though, expects a more dedicated Daniels in 2011.
"He had a great spring, and we're excited about watching him here," Shinnick said. "He knows we're inexperienced in some areas and that he needs to step up and carry the load a little bit.
"He's fast and he can get to the hole quickly. If we can get him to the line, and our line can hold up, we like our chances."
The Broncos, too, have to find ways to fills holes in the skilled positions. Junior college transfer quarterback Brandon Blumears-Cluff (Jr., Phoenix, Ariz.) takes over for the efficient Robert Benjamin, who did not play in last season's game. Also gone is sturdy running back Richard Medlin, who is in camp with the New England Patriots. And on the outside, the Broncos have to replace wideout B.J. Washington.
But Phillips is confident many of the players who were on the sideline last season are ready to step in and make their marks, among them running backs Marquavis Alston (Fr, Rocky Mount, N.C.) and Colon Bailey (So., Manteo, N.C.) and receiver Jamere Pugh (Jr., Henderson, N.C.)
"Our football team has changed this year from last year," Phillips said. "Last year, we played with a lot of young football players. I think we'll have a little more depth coming into this game than we had a year ago."
"I think our guys are motivated to get out there and perform a lot better than we performed in 2010."
Lyles certainly is.
"The defense is a lot better than last year," he said. "The defense puts up a better fight than last year, and especially for Pembroke, which put up 39 points on us last year. We weren't very happy about that."
Should the Broncos hoist the Cup for the first time, it would come to the delight of many in a packed stadium for what may be the largest crowd of the season.
"No one thought it would be this big this fast," Phillips said of the Classic's success. "Everybody thought it would be something that would grow over a period of time. But right out of the gate, both communities jumped right on it."
"It's met and exceeded all expectations," he said. "To see that many people in both stadiums is really exciting. It's great for football in our area and great for Division-II football.
"It's just going to be a great environment. And all of that stuff is great, but it's going to be about what happens between those lines."