By Jim O'Hara
Hawks (2-2, 0-0 GSC) at North Alabama (3-1, 1-0 GSC)
Saturday, Sept. 29 • 7 pm ET • Florence, Ala.
FLORENCE, Ala. -- As much as it hurt, the Shorter Hawks realize that they can't afford to dwell on what is now part of the past. Having suffered a narrow 23-20 Homecoming setback this past Saturday against NCAA Division I FCS Charleston Southern, with turnovers and penalties overshadowing an otherwise solid outing, the Hawks are committed to focusing on the future – specifically the Gulf South Conference.
This Saturday, Shorter makes its much-awaited GSC debut when the Hawks travel to Florence, Ala., to square off against one of the most storied NCAA Division II programs in the nation, the University of North Alabama Lions.
"If you're going to start competing in the Gulf South Conference," SU head coach Phil Jones said as the 2-2 Hawks prepare to play their first-ever conference game in their first season as a Division II team, "take one look at North Alabama. They represent what it's all about. They have a lot of tradition."
And that tradition has come full circle this season.
Despite opening the year having to replace a plethora of starters, the Lions haven't missed a beat as they welcome the Hawks as their Homecoming foe to Braly Municipal Stadium, the site of the Division II National Championship game, boasting a 3-1 record, the latest win coming last week when they defeated rival Delta State 20-12 in the conference opener for both teams.
But what has kept North Alabama on course was the return of a man who helped establish the Lions as a perennial national power – head coach Bobby Wallace, who led UNA to three straight national titles in the 1990s.
Picked to lead the team once again – he replaced Terry Bowden, who directed the program for three seasons and departed to become the head coach at the University of Akron – Wallace is back on the sideline where he walked from 1988-97 and saw the Lions roar to Division II prominence. In 1998, he was named the head coach at Temple, and then assumed the top job at GSC member West Alabama for five seasons.
"(Coach Wallace) is a seasoned coach who knows how to win national championships," Jones said of the UNA legend, who coached against Shorter in 2010 (and won) while at West Alabama. "Each year, they're right at the top of the conference, along with Valdosta State and Delta State."
In fact, the Lions have another impressive streak intact as UNA has earned a berth in the Division II playoffs for the past seven years. This season, UNA (the lone loss came in a 31-10 decision to former GSC member Harding) has given notice that they want to keep that streak alive with the recent win over Delta State serving as the wake-up call for the rest of the conference.
Trailing 9-7 at the half, the Lions shook off the slow start – UNA was held to just 77 total yards in the first two periods – taking control on both sides of the ball, taking the lead for good when running back Lamonte Thompson brook loose for a 79-yard touchdown jaunt and with just over six minutes left saw the ball bounce their way when Taylor Carney recovered a fumble by North Alabama's Luke Wingo in the end zone. The Lions' defense, which kept Delta out of the end zone in the final 30 minutes, sealed the win with just over a minute remaining thanks to an interception by Delvin Ervin.
Thompson is the spearhead of the Lions' run game that operates out of the shotgun averaging 87 yards a game, while quarterback Chris Alexander – he was replaced by Wingo in the second half against the Statesmen – averaged more than 70 yards an outing. As a team, UNA has averaged 338 total yards a game, 262 of that coming on the ground.
"They're very versatile and have a lot of athletes that can make big plays," Jones noted about how the Lions move the ball.
Tavarius Wilson leads Lions' defense with 39 total tackles while Caleb Massey has chipped in 37 total stops this season and with two interceptions shares the team with Jalen Reedus.
"They have some good size inside," Jones said about what the Hawks' offense will face, "but what impresses me is how quick and athletic they are on defense."
Also impressive is UNA placekicker Michael Schuster, who has hit seven of nine field goal attempts but has split the uprights on all four attempts from 40-plus yards including a 50-yarder.
No one has to tell the Hawks that they have to come up with a near flawless performance in their first GSC challenge and put recent history quickly behind them – the heartbreaking loss to Charleston Southern when Shorter all but dominated the game on both sides of the line.
Offensively, the Hawks gained a hefty 447 yards in total offense, 317 on the ground and 130 through the air, with quarterback Eric Dodson turning in his best performance of his young career rushing for 136 yards on 19 carries and completing five of seven passes for 130 yards and a touchdown.
Shorter, however, negated the numbers turning the ball over three times and being flagged 11 times for 138 yards in penalties.
"It hurts to know," said Jones, "that although we accomplished so many things and had the numbers, we had the mental mistakes that caused things not to be successful. But we're not going to dwell on things that have happened. We have to stay focused against a team like North Alabama."
Fans unable to travel to Alabama on Saturday can listen to all the action by tuning into 95.7 WATG-FM The Ridge or by accessing the live webcast link available on the Shorter Athletics homepage. Coverage begins at 5:30 pm with "Hawk Talk" and continues with "The Phil Jones Show" at 6 pm. The pregame show with Jim Bojo and Randy Bowen begins at 6:30 pm.
For Game Notes previewing this weekend's contest, please click here.