By Jim O'Hara
Hawks (4-3, 0-1 GSC) vs. #16 West Alabama (5-2, 2-0 GSC)
Saturday, Oct. 20 • 4:30 pm ET • Livingston, Ala.
ROME -- No one has to tell the Shorter Hawks football team that for the next four weeks will be the toughest stretch of games the program has ever had.
That goes with the territory of playing on the NCAA Division II level and competing as a member of the prestigious and nationally-recognized Gulf South Conference, with the first of four straight conference games taking place on Saturday when Shorter heads to Livingston, Ala., to take on the No. 16-ranked West Alabama Tigers.
The two teams, who faced off once before in 2010 when West Alabama handed the Hawks 37-7 loss in Shorter's season opener, collide in a showdown that begins at 4:30 p.m. (Eastern) and is the GSC-TV Live Football Game of the Week – SU's conference home opener next Thursday, Oct. 25 against Valdosta State has also been tabbed to be televised by the GSC – that will be televised locally on Comcast Sports South and via ESPN3.
"They're just a solid football team," Shorter head coach Phil Jones, who saw his team improve to 4-3 overall last week with a 37-7 non-conference win over Ave Maria (Fla.) University, said about a West Alabama team that is 5-2 and in the GSC's lone unbeaten team with a 2-0 mark. "They have what you'd expect a team to have to compete for a Gulf South championship."
"It's exciting to have the opportunity to play them," he said, "and to know where we are right now as a program."
The Hawks already got a glimpse of what GSC football is all about, having been handed a 41-0 road loss three weeks ago to North Alabama. But when they venture further west across the "Heart of Dixie" they know they will be up against an even tougher foe.
West Alabama is now under the direction of second-year head coach Will Hall, who served as the Tigers' offensive coordinator for three years under Division II coaching legend Bobby Wallace and took over the top job when Wallace returned to North Alabama.
"We do have a feel for what they do," Jones said of the Tigers. "They're doing most of the same things they did when we played them (in 2010) and they're very good at what they do."
Just ask Valdosta State and West Georgia, two GSC rivals West Alabama defeated by respective 39-28 and 24-20 scores to grab hold of first place in the conference. The Tigers have also posted non-conference wins over Clark-Atlanta (44-0) and Mississippi College (41-3), and last week coasted to a gaudy 73-6 romp over College of Faith.
West Alabama's two losses came against two challenges of its own, a 34-6 defeat at the hands of Division I FSC and Southern Conference member Samford, and a 42-27 outcome against Midwestern State, ranked No. 12 in Division II.
In every game, however, what has been consistent for the Tigers is their potent spread offense, one that averages 402 yards – 237 via the rush and 165 passing – and more than 36 points a game. Last week against an outmanned College of Faith team that is in its first-ever season, West Alabama amassed 439 yards.
"They're wide open," Jones said of the Tigers. "One of the toughest factors playing them is that they are well-balanced. They can run it or throw it."
Entering Saturday's game against the Hawks, West Alabama has gotten production from a pair of quarterbacks.
Junior Gary Johnston has moved the ball with his legs and his arm, rushing for 372 yards on 62 carries and four touchdowns and has completed 17 of 33 passes for 283 yards and three TDs, but sophomore Kyle Caldwell has emerged as a passing threat of late competing 57 of 98 tosses for 829 yards and five scores.
Sophomore Chad Toocheck has been the top receiving target for the Tigers with 15 catches for 172 and a touchdown, while juniors Marcus Brown and Reggie Hall each have 11 receptions and a touchdown and have combined for more than 200 yards.
West Alabama, however, has done the most damage to opposing defenses on the ground and, running behind an offensive line that averages close to 300 pounds, has proven it has the depth. After losing senior running back Matt Willis, who in the Tigers first five games averaged 107 yards an outing – to a season-ending injury, junior Danny Hobbs has stepped in to head up the run game, gaining 325 yards on 49 carries and three touchdowns.
"They're a very, very athletic and talented football team," Jones quickly points out.
Those traits, the coach continued, are just as noticeable when the Tigers put their defensive unit on the field, one that has held opponents to an average of just 138 rushing and 114 passing yards a game.
"They're team speed defensively is very good and versatile," Jones said of West Alabama's defense.
"They run a 4-2-5 concept and when you have five guys who can play as defensive backs or linebackers, it becomes a very adjustable defense."
And a very balanced one as six Tigers have recorded 20 or more tackles, with a pair of seniors leading the way, linebacker Deon Lacey and defensive end Ridge Wilson.
Lacey is the team's leader with 25 stops – 22 of them have been solo hits – four tackles for losses, two sacks and an interceptions; while the 6-foot-4, 256-pound Wilson has 24.5 tackles, most of those coming in the backfield of the other team where he has registered 7.5 tackles for losses and 4.5 sacks.
Anchoring West Alabama's pass defense are junior cornerback Malcolm Butler and senior safety Otha Foster, who have four interceptions apiece.
For added measure, West Alabama has the GSC's most accurate placekicker in senior Ryne Smith, who has converted all 24 of his extra point attempts and is a perfect 14-for-14 in field goals, the longest going 47 yards.
"We're planning like we always do," said Jones. "All four of our last games will be intense and West Alabama represents what you're going to see at the best level of Division II football.
"We'll have to play without turning the ball over and without mistakes," he said, "as we want to do in every game. We know it will be a challenge, but in our eyes we see all four games as being winnable, starting with this one."