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ASU Hornets 'D' creates buzz, but run game lacks sting
They’re the only unbeaten team in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, but does that make Alabama State the team to beat?
Can a team that ranks near the bottom of the national standings in rushing offense still field a championship program?
The Hornets hope the answer to both questions is yes, but only time will tell whether the Alabama State offense can continue to rely on its defense to lead the way.
“For some reason, we can’t break the ice in the first half,” ASU quarterback Greg Jenkins said. “We’re going to work on that in practice this week.”
The Hornets (4-1) and Alcorn State were deadlocked at 10-10 at halftime Saturday before the Hornets caught fire with a pair of touchdowns.
The winning formula this season has been provided by the defense, which has forced nine fumbles and 14 interceptions. The 23 turnovers gained is tops in the NCAA, three ahead of Division II’s Lane College.
“We have the best defense in the land, which puts us in great situations,” Jenkins said.
The Hornets also have the third-rated passing offense in the conference, but a struggling running game often puts them in third-and-long situations. The Hornets rank ninth in the conference and 98th in the Football Championship Subdivision (out of 120 teams) in rushing offense at just 92.4 yards per game.
“Also, we have had penalties that are backing us up, and those aren’t situations to run the ball,” Jenkins said. “So we’re forced to throw the ball.”
It isn’t like the offense isn’t determined to improve, though.
“My hat goes off to the defense. They’ve been playing lights out the whole season,” ASU senior receiver Nick Andrews said. “We’ve just got to be a better offensive unit and step up and run the ball better.”
Tailback Quendarius McKibben had a career-high 16 carries last week but generated just 56 yards, an average of 3.5 yards per rush. For the season, he has 167 yards on 53 carries, a paltry number for an offense nearing the midpoint of the season.
“We’ve got to be able to run the ball,” ASU coach Reggie Barlow said. “And we’re trying to put our guys in situations to run it. With guys like Nick and Greg and some other weapons we have, you’ve got to take advantage of them as well. We’ll continue to work on the running game to try and improve it.”
Part of the problem lies with an offensive line that has had four different lineups in five games. The Hornets lost tackles Kevin Bryant and Rokendrick Delaine over the summer for personal reasons and tackle Terren Jones to injury.
A pair of new tackles, A.J. Harmon and L.J. Abrams, practiced with the first team but haven’t played because of NCAA eligibility issues. Jones returned to the lineup for the third game, but another tackle, Terrance Swift, suffered a season-ending injury, as did guard Trei Mitchell. Another guard, David Hate, has played most of the season with a nagging ankle injury.
“Our offensive line is banged up pretty bad,” Barlow said. “We’ve got some guys that are warriors. It’s tough when you’ve got guys with bad ankles and they can’t push off the way they need to.”
The Hornets right now are the team to beat in the SWAC, but each game will continue to be a struggle as they search for more consistency on offense.
A road game at Texas Southern this week features a rematch of the 2010 SWAC Championship Game, won by Texas Southern on the strength of its defense.
That will be the challenge for the Hornets again this week as they strive to balance their passing attack with more production from the running game.
“Their defense is outstanding,” Barlow said. “Every week it’s a challenge. It’s tough, and it’s a grind getting your guys ready and preparing them. Then to have to go on the road and play a really good defense that is ranked nationally is going to be a challenge in itself.”