By Jim O'Hara
Hawks (5-5, 1-3 GSC) vs. Delta State (3-6, 1-3 GSC)
Saturday, Nov. 10 • 1:30 pm ET • Rome, Ga.
ROME -- No longer are they the overlooked newcomer, the team most everyone thought would take a while to become a winner in what is arguably the toughest NCAA Division II conference in the nation.
Last week in Carrollton, the Shorter Hawks didn't just get their foot in the Gulf South Conference door, they kicked it in when they rallied to take their historic first-ever GSC win in a 24-20 decision over in-state rival West Georgia that was decided in the final seconds.
This week at Barron Stadium, the Hawks are determined to show they are here to stay as a conference threat when Shorter hosts GSC foe Delta State – another Gulf South program that has won a national championship – in the season finale Saturday at 1:30 p.m., one that would give the Hawks (5-5 overall, 1-3 conference) their sixth winning season in eight years with this one being even more special considering the high competitive-level path Shorter has taken.
"It's big to our seniors and our team," Shorter head coach Phil Jones said about what's at stake for the Hawks and their 15 seniors when they square off against Statesmen. "It would be a huge accomplishment."
"We're taking a positive approach to it," the coach added, "and want to take another step forward coming off of what happened last Saturday."
What the Hawks did against West Georgia will go down as the earmark of Shorter's first year as a Division II program and came with a classic storybook ending.
Finding themselves staring at a 20-17 deficit with less than two minutes left in the game, the Hawks saw their season-long hard work and determination pay off when they put together a textbook 10-play, 76-yard drive – it included two crucial third-down conversions – that culminated when sophomore quarterback Eric Dodson broke into the end zone from six yards out to score the winning touchdown with just nine ticks of the clock remaining.
"We ended up winning the game by throwing the ball in a one-minute situation and that's something we practice every day," Jones said about the game-winning series that evoked a wild celebration from the large contingent of Hawks fans and the Shorter band that accompanied the team on the road.
"That was really, really a big plus for us down there," the coach noted about the support the Hawks had. "It helped when the players saw that and we're thankful for it."
"The kids played their hearts out. It was a team thing," Jones said. "It didn't matter who needed to do what – they all did it and they kept going and going and going."
"I hope we can finish like that with our guys understanding what this game means."
As they have learned week after week, the Hawks understand that they have to work even harder to cap the season with a win, even more so against a Delta State team that although undergoing a rebuilding period is still regarded as a benchmark if you want to be successful in the Gulf South Conference.
"We're playing a program that has won a national championship," Jones quickly pointed out, "and they may be the biggest team we've seen physically."
Under first-year head coach Jamey Chadwell, who took over the Statesmen after leading North Greenville to the last year's Division II quarterfinals, Delta State (3-6, 1-3) comes to Rome for the first time riding a three game losing streak, the most recent defeat coming last week in a 33-18 non-conference loss to Indianapolis.
"Traditionally, they have been a power-type of team but now they are more of a spread team, like the one (Chadwell) ran at North Greenville," Jones said about Delta State's offensive scheme, "and they're so big up front compared to us, it's a concern."
The Statesmen average 24 points a game, thanks to an attack that produces 377 yards an outing and is spread out between the run and the pass.
Of greatest concern for Shorter will be junior quarterback Trevor Wooden, who transferred from Missouri State to Delta State this year and has become the GSC's leader in total offense.
Although he did not play against Indianapolis, Wooden has 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.
That doesn't mean, however, that Shorter can overlook any of the other Statesmen.
In Wooden's absence last week, junior quarterback Spencer Van Brunt stepped in behind center and threw for 134 yards and a touchdown, and when it comes to hauling in the passes the Statesmen have been led by senior receivers Kevin Jackson's 28 receptions for 483 yards and four TDs and Lavon Downs' 37 grabs that resulted in 453 yards and three scores.
For added measure to Delta State's ground game, freshman Rondreas Truesdale has rushed for 408 yards and three TDs.
As big as the Statesmen are on the offensive side of the ball, the Hawks will find them just as sizeable defensively.
"Size wise, they're like Valdosta State," Jones said about the Statesmen defenders, who operate out of a 3-4 base and allow foes 368 yards a game. "To be successful against them we have to handle them up front and block those guys."
Sophomore linebacker Rory Island heads up Delta State's defensive charge with 56 tackles, 6.5 tackles for losses and two sacks, senior safety Montavious Hill has added 53 tackles, and junior linebacker Ixavier Triplett has made 51 stops.
Sophomore linebacker Diego Lubin has loomed as a player who likes to operate in opposing backfields where he has team-high 12.5 tackles for losses and 3.5 sacks.
Jones feels that Delta State will demand the Hawks' full attention and the focus that has carried Shorter through a season that has had its share of ups and downs.
"It has been a rough year for them," the Shorter coach said about his players, "but they've never given up, and life is like that. You will have tough times but you still keep pounding at it until the sunshine comes."
"We've come a long way since that North Alabama game," Jones said about Shorter's first conference team last month. "We believe that our guys are now at the point where they think they can win."