Oct. 15, 2010
FAYETTEVILLE, NC - With under a minute remaining in the game, the Fayetteville State defense stood on its side of the line of scrimmage and could see the Virginia State offense in its huddle. Only 10 yards behind the Broncos was the end zone.
The Trojans had all of the momentum, and were trying to complete a rally from 21 points down and pick up a potential game-tying touchdown as the final seconds were winding down. It was first-and-goal, and they had four cracks at it.
The Trojans never got any closer, and the Broncos' defense, after forcing four straight incomplete passes, put the finishing touches on a brilliant 21-14 victory over a Virginia State team that had entered the game unbeaten in CIAA play.
"I told the team after the game that, `You grew up on Saturday night.' When you can win a football game with the ball being first-and-goal on the 10-yard line, and a team has four snaps at it, that's huge," said Fayetteville State head coach Kenny Phillips, who spoke on Wednesday during his weekly news conference. "And they responded well to the challenge that was put forth. I thought that was a big thing for our football team this year."
That particular series of downs was perhaps emblematic of something larger, though. It showed that, even with two losses in the CIAA, the Broncos (2-4, 1-2) have no plans to fold up the tent and just go through the motions the rest of the season.
Instead, it's time to play. Because, after all, that's the point of it all.
"Everybody will count you out after you get two losses, but there's still a lot of football left in this season," said Phillips. "A lot of things need to happen to get us to the championship game, but our focus right now is to make sure our football team understands that we have to continue to win games. We've got a very good team to play this Saturday, and we've got to play very well to win that game, but don't ever count anyone out of this thing. That's why they play these games on Saturdays."
Fayetteville State will hit the road for the fifth time in seven games this season to play Shaw (42, 3-0) at 6 p.m. Saturday at Southeast Raleigh High School. It will mark the fourth straight week the Broncos have played a team that enters the game unbeaten in league play. To add to the drama, a meeting between Shaw and Fayetteville State typically helps to decide the eventual CIAA champion - the winner of the last three meetings has gone on to win the league title, with Fayetteville State edging the Bears 29-28 last season and Shaw getting the better of the Broncos in 2007 and 2008 on its way to back-to-back championships.
But while Shaw is considered a lock to at least be in contention for a berth in the title game, their hopes could suffer a serious blow should the Broncos bring the same kind of winning effort this weekend that was so successful in Petersburg, VA. The Bears still have games with Winston-Salem State and St. Augustine's to close out the season, and some form of attrition could bring the Broncos right back into the thick of things if they can win for the second straight week.
"Like I said, there's a lot of football left in this season," Phillips said. "You look at what happened at Winston-Salem last week (in the Rams' 40-35 home loss to St. Aug's) - everybody kind of tabbed Winston-Salem State to be in the championship game in November. But you've got to play each week, and I'm pretty sure Shaw is going to be ready for Fayetteville State. But we're going to go out there and lay our ears down and get after it on Saturday."
The Broncos may still be having a tough time in the running game, but quarterback Robert Benjamin (Jr., Phoenix, AZ) appears to hitting a groove. He was 20-of-29 passing for 226 yards and a season-high three touchdowns against Virginia State. Benjamin spread the ball around to eight different receivers, and was 11 of 13 to start the game, leading Fayetteville State on two scoring drives in its first two offensive possessions to set the tone early in the game.
"I tell you what, he threw the football," Phillips said of his quarterback. "He was throwing some darts out there on Saturday. He did a great job throwing the ball and keeping Virginia State off balance. When it looked like he was down, he'd keep his head up and throw the football down the field."
Beset by dropped passes for much of the season, the Broncos' receivers showed off good hands that enabled the Broncos to consistently move the chains. Phillips credited the receivers with their overall improvement, but did say a zoned-in Benjamin may have had something to do with that also.
"We've done a much better job catching the ball," Phillips said. "He threw a couple of balls they didn't have a choice in catching - I think it stuck to them."
As good as the offense looked in rolling up 350 total yards, the defense was the story of the game, holding an explosive Virginia State offensive attack to just 95 yards through three quarters. Defensive end Aaron Patterson (Jr, Mount Holly, NC) had a solo sack and 2.5 tackles for loss while the CIAA's leading tackler, Jeremy Cunningham (Sr., Casa Grande AZ), and fellow linebacker Kavarius Walker (Sr., Miami, FL) had eight tackles each.
"(Patterson, Cunningham and Walker) are three of the guys who played for us last year, and it's good to see those three guys step up for us because we were counting on them to lead this football team," Phillips said.
Combine that with the emerging play out of a young secondary - Joshua Wilkins
(Jr., Riviera Beach, FL) had an interception in the end zone and Simeon Marshall
(Fr., Jacksonville, NC) had a solid game shadowing VSU's deep threat Timoth Paulk -- and the Broncos are trending the right way defensively as they prepare to play a Shaw team that ranks second in the CIAA in scoring offense and total offense while placing third in rushing and passing.
That said, with Raymond Williams (625 yards, 4 TDs) returning and quarterback Kevin Atkins (1,126 yards passing, 12 TDs) under center, Phillips and the Broncos know they have a formidable foe to play this weekend. Fayetteville State needs all facets of the game to be playing well to pull off a second-straight shocker in the CIAA.
"I think we match up pretty well with them, but we've got to make some plays," said Phillips. "We can't turn the ball over because they are a very explosive football team. For us as a defensive football team, we've got a challenge ahead of us."
But don't expect the Broncos to back down from that challenge. They still feel like they have a lot to play for.
"Everybody thinks the Broncos are down and out," said Phillips. "Everybody thinks we're not very good football team, but we're a pretty good football team."
Virginia State would have to agree.