After hearing what Morehouse Head Football Coach Rich Freeman said about his team in the press conference leading up to the 77th Annual Tuskegee-Morehouse Classic, most football experts could safely assume that Tuskegee University would improve their overall record to 4-1 on the season and 3-0 in the SIAC after Saturday’s contest. Heading into the game, Morehouse (2-4 overall, 1-2 in SIAC) had lost the top three tailbacks on their depth chart due to injury, and the starting defense for the Maroon Tigers was also decimated with injuries.
Yet, in the Golden Tigers’ 21-14 victory at A.J. McClung Stadium in Columbus, Ga. last weekend, Tuskegee’s old rival proved why you can’t assume anything (and why all records must be tossed out) in a rivalry game. A scoreless first quarter set the tone for what would be a game dominated by both defenses throughout the afternoon. Freshman Quavon Taylor earned MVP of the contest after becoming the only TU defensive player to end up with a double-digit tackling total (15 in all, with ten solo) and multiple interceptions for the game (one for each half played).
Tuskegee Coach Willie Slater said that the transfer from the University of South Florida was noticeable to the coaching staff in the first 30 minutes of the game, when Taylor already had ten tackles by halftime.
“I noticed that he was making a lot of plays in the first half,” Slater said. “The last pick [in the fourth quarter] was a really good play on his part. I didn’t realize that his hands were as good as they were.”
Another player that had great hands for the Golden Tigers was sophomore wide receiver Marquel Gardner. Gardner was the classic’s leading receiver on Saturday, with seven receptions for 115 yards. Slater noted his ability to grab the ball amongst double and triple coverage, as he demonstrated this several times against Morehouse.
“He’s a great player,” Slater said of Gardner. “He doesn’t worry about players on the other team. It’s just him and the football, and he has been a pleasant surprise for us, considering that he started his career on defense.”
The former free safety’s reliability as a primary receiver came as a relief for sophomore quarterback Justin Nared. The Evergreen, Ala. native took another step toward solidifying his place as the top passer on the team, as he threw for the first 200-yard game for Tuskegee this season. Nared completed 15-of-23 passing attempts for 207 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Nared started multiple games for the Golden Tigers as a true freshman last year, and Slater said that the improvement is starting to become visible in the way that he manages the offense. “He has done a really good job,” Slater said. “The difference between this year and last year is that he knows where to throw the football. He had a few errant throws, but he was throwing accurately the entire day.”
With all cylinders seeming to click on both sides of the football for the Golden Tigers, Tuskegee will face one of their biggest tests of the season almost immediately. This Thursday, Tuskegee travels to Tuscaloosa to play Stillman College (4-2 overall, 3-0 in SIAC) on a regionally televised game broadcast on Comcast Sports South. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m., but Slater admits that the game is a new challenge that he is experiencing in his coaching career.
“It is going to be an experiment for me,” Slater said. “I haven’t done it. I haven’t coached a game on Thursday night, so it will prove to be an experience for me. Stillman is a very disciplined team. They are one of the most fundamentally sound teams to play in our conference, and we must be on top of our game if we are to have a chance.”
Stillman is coming from playing a game in which the Tigers held off a furious rally on the road against the only winless team in the SIAC, as Benedict (0-6 overall) nearly pulled off a major upset before dropping a 24-19 decision in Columbia, S.C. Benedict outgained Stillman 312-208 in total offensive yardage, and managed eight sacks on the defensive end.