At the second annual SIAC Championship Game in Atlanta last Saturday night, the Tuskegee Golden Tigers went through several cases of Déjà vu en route to winning their 26th SIAC Championship outright by a score of 55-24 over Fort Valley State University. The championship trophy marks the 29th overall conference title in football, with three championships serving as division titles that did not determine an overall conference champion back from 1967-1969.
The familiarity of the night began when the Golden Tigers (9-1 overall, undefeated at 7-0 in conference play) wore black jerseys for just the second time in school history, as they did when they played at the same venue in Lakewood Stadium, when TU defeated Johnson C. Smith 35-17 on Sept. 8 for the first win of the season in the inaugural Inner City Classic. During Saturday’s game, Tuskegee would see tailback Derrick Washington rush for over 200 yards against a Wildcat defense (8-3 overall and 6-1 in SIAC) in which he had achieved a similar fate against in the first meeting between the schools earlier this season. Like that 49-18 decision at Abbott Stadium in late September, the Golden Tigers would pick up another 31-point victory against an East Division Champion that did not suffer any other losses in conference play.
Tuskegee Head Football Coach Willie Slater said that of the five SIAC Championships he has won in his seven years at TU, this most recent championship ranks as the absolute best.
“I’m really proud of it,” Slater said. “This is probably the sweetest one of all, with playing in an actual conference championship game that wasn’t even possible just a few years ago. We were also coming off of a season that was upsetting last year, because we could have won every single game and just didn’t get the job done.”
Washington was named MVP of the SIAC Championship, with a season high 224 rushing yards to go with two touchdowns on the ground, and another 107 yards receiving with an extra touchdown caught through the air. Appropriately, the senior transfer from the University of Missouri was named on Friday as one of three nominees in the SIAC’s West Division to place on the initial list of 24 candidates for the annual Harlon Hill Trophy. The award, which is presented to the college football player of the year in NCAA Division II, has two other candidates in the SIAC West representing six spots in Super Regional 2. Those candidates are senior QB David Thomas from Miles College and senior LB Corey Jones from Lane College.
The effort by Washington impressed Slater, who had high praise for the Raymore, Mo. native.
“It’s an honor that he is considered for the award, because nobody deserves it more than him,” Slater said. “We know that he could have easily broken the school record against them. But, that’s not a priority of his or ours. He is a real humble kid, and cares more about winning than anything else in the sport of football.”
Washington’s performance was the third 200-yard rushing game that he had this season, which was a season high in rushing that put him just 35 yards away from the all-time single-game mark at Tuskegee. Michael Scott had 259 yards rushing against Kentucky State in 1997.
“He’s the best running back that I’ve ever coached,” Slater said. “That’s no disrespect to any other running back that I’ve coached during my coaching career, but he’s not only a good runner. His vision is unbelievable, and what I’ve been struggling to teach players for years just happens to come naturally to him.”
The stingiest defense in the conference also made its’ presence felt, even though the Wildcats broke the 20-point barrier on the Golden Tigers for the first time all season long. Seniors Adam Lucas and William Buford both returned interceptions thrown by Antonio Henton for touchdowns, and the transfer QB from Ohio State would throw one more pick as his streak of games without throwing an interception would end at four. The last time Henton threw an interception was against TU in the first meeting between the two schools earlier this season, when he threw four more interceptions. Overall, the Golden Tigers picked off Fort Valley seven times in two games.
“They’ve had a great year,” Slater said of the young men in his defensive secondary. “We’ve been able to stop people, and you can’t take anything away from that once our goals are set on that side of the ball.”
Up next for Tuskegee is the Annual Turkey Day Game vs. Alabama State on Thanksgiving Day. The game will take place at Alabama State’s new arena in Montgomery, and Slater is taking nothing for granted against the old rival, especially with the Hornets at 7-3 and on a three-game winning streak.
“I haven’t looked at the film yet, but I do know that they have very good personnel,” Slater said. “The two quarterbacks that they play, as with their defense linemen, are pretty good. Plus, the level of competition they’ve been playing in Division I is a bit higher than what we are used to in the SIAC.”
Kickoff is set for Nov. 22nd at 3:00 p.m., and all ticket inquiries must be made through Alabama State University. Currently, Tuskegee leads the all-time series 60-34-4.