BATTLE OF THE UNBEATENS AT VSU’S HOMECOMING
Previewing the Trojans’ home game versus Bowie State
ETTRICK - This could be the game.
The game that determines who represents the North in the CIAA title game.
Two unbeatens will collide on the gridiron of Rogers Stadium at Virginia State University. The VSU Trojans are 5-0. The Bowie State Bulldogs are 6-0.
The Trojans want to grow their winning streak at their home field to seven straight games.
Oh, and by the way, it’s Virginia State’s Homecoming Game.
“Games like this is why you sign up to play football and coach football,” said VSU head coach Reggie Barlow.
The Trojans are enjoying their first 5-0 start to a season since 1993.
“We’ve been blessed with some amazing student-athletes. We do have a good group of guys. They’ve bought into the vision of what we wanted this 2017 season to be about,” Barlow said. “Our coaches [including Mark Carney, Dwone Sanders, Vernon Dean, Brandon Kirksey, Aaron Mehl and Alex Stadler] have done a good job of communicating the plan and what we want to get done.”
The Trojans set the tone for 2017 by stunning their rival, Division I team Norfolk State, 14-10. They also triumphed in overtime, 33-27, against two-time defending CIAA Champion Winston-Salem State.
“Having that experience of playing in a tough, hard-fought game for four quarters and eventually overtime, obviously they’re able to show that they can work through something,” Barlow said of his Trojans. “They’ve been able to overcome adversity and still find a way to win.”
Virginia State’s great run to open the 2017 campaign isn’t all that surprising when you consider last year’s success - the Trojans
finished 9-2 in Barlow’s first year at the helm.
But that year, they were stacked with playmakers on both sides of the ball - Tarian Ayres, Geo Feggins, Kavon Bellamy and Trevon Byron among them.
“I knew those guys were a big part of the team last year, and I knew that we were gonna lose them,” said Virginia State runningback Trent Cannon, who’s a senior this year. “But also I knew that we had guys that can replace them.”
Cannon also helped lead the charge in 2016. He came back, and he’s been on fire, averaging a CIAA conference-leading 125 yards and one rushing touchdown per game this season.
“He runs the ball well. He runs hard when he has the ball, he catches the ball well, but he’s also been great at protection for us,” Barlow said of Cannon. “Then there’s some times we use him as a decoy where we motion him out and try to get the defense focused on him and get the ball to someone else.”
“I love having him in the backfield with me,” VSU quarterback Cordelral Cook said of Cannon. “That makes my job a little easier. [Opponents have] got to pick their poison. They’ve either got to watch me or watch him.”
Cannon also had the touchdown that helped tie the Trojans’ game versus Winston-Salem State, setting up an overtime situation from which VSU emerged triumphant.
“I knew I was gonna score,” Cannon said. “Nothing in my head told me that I wasn’t gonna score, so I just had faith I was gonna score that play...”
VSU’s O-line haspaved the way for the Trojans to average 453 yards of total offense per game - second in the CIAA conference.
“Our O-line is young, but the guys are constantly getting better,” Barlow said. “Coach Stadler, our offensive line coach, has done a good job with them.”
A team goes as their leader goes, and Cordelral Cook, by the numbers, is thriving in his first full year in the starting QB position at VSU.
“Cook’s a great athlete,” Cannon said. “He can pass, he can run and the defense don’t know what to expect.”
Cook leads the Trojans in total rushing touchdowns with eight. It was his two trips to the end zone that ultimately made the difference in the Trojans’ victory over Norfolk State.
“I feel like that win was huge for us, but we just take every game the same,” Cook said. “I feel like it was a momentum builder for the season since it was a D1 team and we’re a D2 program.”
Cook’s longest run of the season came on a zigzagging 76-yard scorcher of a touchdown against Winston-Salem State. He started leaning towards the right on the play, but then cut across the entire width of the field, dashing down the left sideline to score.
“My general rule is to go out of bounds, but when I’d seen nobody was attacking me, I was like, ‘I might as well just go ahead,’” Cook said.
“We knew of his ability as a quarterback - I just think it’s taken some time to grow mentally, physically and understand the system,” Barlow said of Cook. “Now, his athletic ability, he’s able to show it because he’s been in this system for two years, he’s been in college for three years, and it’s all come together for him.”
It’s been a season where several players have been stepping up and making plays, from Cannon to Cook to wide receiver Zach Parker to defenders Brandon Lynch, Malik Sexton and Michael Harris.
Virginia State’s defense continues to dominate up front, allowing 12 points a game and a stingy 81 rushing yards per game to lead the CIAA in both categories. The Trojans have given up just two running touchdowns through five games played.
“Last year we had some individuals that were outstanding and got a lot of recognition,” Barlow said. “But this defense, it’s fitting together as a unit. The front seven are solid guys, they know what gap they’re supposed to be in. It’s all about gap integrity with our defense.”
For the Trojans on Saturday, stopping the passing game in addition to continuing their dominance against the run will be key. They’ve been successful, holding teams to 174.2 passing ypg and five touchdowns total. The secondary features cornerbacks Shakym Peters and Logan Oce - “two guys that are playing the game the way you’d like them to play it,” Barlow said - as well as safeties Will Adams and Tre’Varius Brooks.
“Our secondary has been solid and coming up and making tackles,” Barlow said. “We ask those guys to do a bunch in the passing game, but also to be good in the running game as well...”
This Saturday, they’ll face the #1 passer in the conference. Bowie State quarterback Amir Hall leads the CIAA with 330 ypg and 24 touchdowns through the air. Brandon Britton has been his top target, as Britton leads the conference in receiving with 90 ypg and nine touchdowns. BSU wide receiver Lansana Sesay sits second in the CIAA with 88 ypg and five TDs.
“It’s gonna be a tall task, but we’ll practice some stuff here leading up to the game, kind of what we do for all athletic quarterbacks ... making sure our defensive linemen understand the rushing lanes and not rushing too far up-field,” Barlow said.
Bowie State’s also had the defense to back up their high-powered offense. In CIAA play, they sit second behind Virginia State in points allowed (14 ppg) and rushing yards (141 ypg). They also lead the conference in passing yards allowed (104 ypg) and fumbles recovered (seven). They’re also tied with Livingstone for most interceptions this season at nine to add to the pressure they bring against the pass.
“At every position there’s a guy there that you can say, ‘Hey, this kid can play. I wouldn’t mind coaching him,’” Barlow said of Bowie State. “There’s some interior guys that are really big and have nice size, that kind of force the pocket and they’re pushing guys back ... we’ve just gotta make sure we protect, and obviously our young guys have done a pretty decent job of protecting so far. It’s been a big challenge for them, but we’re looking forward to seeing it.”
The last time Bowie State came to town, they crashed Virginia State’s Homecoming by winning 22-19 in 2015.
That’s a heartbreak the Trojans don’t wish to revisit for many reasons.
Not only is a Homecoming win desirable, but whoever wins, stays undefeated and increases their chances of playing in the CIAA Championship game. The #1 spot in the Northern Division, currently held by Bowie State, is up for grabs in this game as VSU sits at #2.
A victory would also make Coach Barlow 7-0 at home as the head coach of the Trojans.
“There’s a lot of things that play into this game,” Barlow said. “It’s a big game because it’s Homecoming and obviously it means so much to a lot of alum, and then of course it’s a big game because it’s Bowie State. They over the last few years have really set the bar for the Northern Division ... they’re playing some really good ball, and we’ve got to be ready to play.”
“We look at it as a big opportunity for us to get ranked. Since they’re ranked, we should get ranked if we come out with the win,” Cook said. “But we’re gonna treat ‘em no different from anybody else.”
“We’re taking them the same as we have any other team we’ve played,” Cannon said. “It’s the next game, so the next game is the most important game. That’s how we’re taking Bowie.”
Game time for the mammoth matchup between the Virginia State Trojans and the Bowie State Bulldogs is Saturday, Oct. 14 at Virginia State University’s Rogers Stadium in Ettrick.
Game time is 2 p.m.; however, due to anticipated Homecoming traffic, early arrival is encouraged.
In this file photo, Virginia State Football’s Cordelral Cook (center) runs in a 76-yard touchdown against WinstonSalem State. The VSU Trojans will seek to stay undefeated against Bowie State, the leading team in the CIAA Northern Division, on Saturday...