As the Shorter Hawks lined up for their last play of the last drill during the team’s mid-week practice, with the offense working on its passing game against the defense fine-tuning its pass coverage, senior strong safety Kendall Lacey pleaded with offensive coordinator Tim Mathis for a chance to run a play as a receiver.
The out-going Lacey got his wish, ran a deep post route against his defensive teammates and saw the ball bounce off the tips of his fingers. Throughout it all, everyone – Lacey, the Hawks, and the coaches – couldn’t help but laugh and as the team gathered around head coach Phil Jones at midfield for to end the darkening fall afternoon, Jones picked up on the good feelings.
“I want to have fun this Saturday” were the first words out of mouth of the still-smiling Jones, who immediately associated the upbeat attitude of the Hawks with what they have ahead of them Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at Barron Stadium when Shorter, fresh from recording its first historic Gulf South Conference win, hosts GSC foe and former national champion Delta State in the final game of the season and one that will determine if the Hawks cap their first year as an NCAA Division II team with a winning record.
“They’ve been pretty vibrant this week,” Jones said about the Hawks’ positive (and fun) psyche they have, something that has been present all season but intensified after they stunned the GSC with a 24-20 road win last week against West Georgia. “Sometimes that can be a good thing and sometimes it isn’t.”
“But I do know they like each other,” the coach said, “and they know what this game means.”
The Hawks, now 5-5 overall and 1-3 in the conference, also know that in order to give the program its sixth winning season in eight years and possibly finish in a remarkable fourth place in the GSC, they must play even better against a Delta State squad (3-6, 1-3) that will be ever-so-hungry to end a three-game losing streak against the conference newcomer.
Operating out of a spread offense that produces 24 points a game and a balanced 377 yards a game, Delta State main firepower comes from one of the most versatile players in the conference. Junior quarterback Trevor Wooden, who transferred from Missouri State to Delta State this year, has become the GSC’s leader in total offense as he’s gained 543 yards and scored nine touchdowns when he runs the ball and when he throws it he has completed 98 of 188 passes (with 11 interceptions) for 1,520 yards and 12 TDs.
“Their talent looks as good as anybody in the conference,” Jones said about the Statesmen, who are playing the Hawks for the first time. “They have a good system and they know what they’re doing.”
Whether Wooden plays, however, is a mystery for Shorter as the Statesmen’s signal-caller did not play in last week’s loss to non-conference foe Indianapolis. In any case, the Hawks’ defense has emerged as a unit that can adapt to anything they see.
Entering the game holding foes to an average of 130 rushing and 206 passing yards an outing, the Hawks’ defenders have exhibited both balance and individual record-setting performances.
Senior All-American linebacker Demery Hawkins heads into his last game at Shorter leading the team with 67 tackles and has single-season record 15 tackles for losses.
Sophomore linebacker Dominique Henfield has added another 50 tackles despite battling nagging bumps and bruises all season and had a season-high 14 tackles and key interception against West Georgia, while senior safety Desmond Clark has put some icing on his Shorter cake having registered 40 tackles.
Leading the charge across the line has been freshman defensive end Laynce Sanders, who has 39 tackles and now holds the Hawks’ single-season record for sacks with 8.5, a figure that is the best in the GSC although it is not listed in the conference statistics due to Shorter being in its first of a two-year probation period in the NCAA and the conference and is not eligible for any titles or post-season awards.
The Hawks, however, know where they stand as far as being one of the top teams in the GSC rank and file, and have seen themselves head into the season finale in the top spot of several categories.
Not surprisingly, Shorter’s traditional and vaunted rushing attack out of the wing option offense leads the Gulf South by averaging 230 of its 352 total yards per game on the ground.
Spearheading the Hawks’ ground game is, though not listed, the GSC’s top rusher in junior fullback Bradley Moon, who now has 941 yards on 174 carries and nine touchdowns, and coming into the showdown with the Statesmen is on the verge of becoming just the second player to top the 1,000-yard single-season rushing mark, joining Shorter All-American A.J. Cooley.
Sophomore quarterback Eric Dodson gives Shorter another running threat having rushed for 535 yards and nine TDs, but more importantly has greatly increased the Hawks’ ability to be a passing threat having established a new team record for yards throwing the ball in a season.
Dodson set the new mark that was set in Shorter’s inaugural season in 2005 last week at West Georgia when he threw for 123 yards, and as he prepares to line up against Delta State he has competed 45 of 94 passes for 855 yards and five touchdowns.
Three seniors have become favorite targets for Dodson – slotback Brandon Morten and wideouts Allen Huntley and Kareem Hawkins. Morten leads the team having picked up 382 yards on 12 catches with three touchdowns, while Huntley has 11 grabs for 146 and Hawkins latching on to nine passes for 138 yards.
Much to the delight of Jones and the team, the passing game wound up being the deciding factor against West Georgia.
In Shorter’s all-around best game since the early stages of the season, the Hawks marched 76 yards on 10 plays in the final two minutes of a game-winning drive, with Dodson – well-protected by Shorter’s much underrated offensive line – hitting Hawkins and Huntley on two key third-down passes to keep the drive alive and then connecting with Hawkins on a 34-yard gainer that put Shorter in the red zone. With nine seconds left to play, Dodson found the end zone for the third time in the game from six yards out to seal the victory.
“They just wouldn’t be denied – they were just going to do it,” said Jones. “I hope they are ready to do it again.”
And have fun.