ROME, Ga. — This will be their first conference game of the season and the first time they have played their opponent, though the foe’s head coach is no stranger to their program.
The Shorter Hawks clearly understand what’s ahead of them Thursday night and, even more, are fully aware that it’s time to put a complete game together when they host the Mississippi College Choctaws, who have begun the process of returning to the NCAA Division II ranks and the Gulf South Conference, at Barron Stadium in a conference showdown starting at 7:30 p.m.
“When you play against a team or a coach for a while, there’s always the chance that they could do something different or do the same things,” Shorter head coach Phil Jones said about the 2-1 Hawks’ clash with the 0-3 Choctaws that are led by head coach John Bland who took over that program after an eight-year stint at the University of the Cumberlands, where he faced Shorter five times when the Hawks were members of the NAIA Mid-South Conference.
“We know that they are a well-coached and a well-rounded team that is getting better every week,” Jones said. “We know we’ll be up against a tough football team eager to get their first win.”
The Choctaws – they were GSC members from 1972-1996 before dropping back to Division III until this year – have certainly had their hands full so far this season.
They enter the game against Shorter after opening up the season falling in lopsided scores against in-state and NAIA foe Belhaven 32014, No. 5-ranked and GSC power North Alabama 58-0 and two weeks ago – like the Hawks they were off last week – to NCAA Division I FCS member Lamar 55-10.
Still adapting to the base wing-option offense and stacked defensive look Bland and the coaching staff his brought with him used at Cumberlands effectively, the Choctaws come to Rome for the first time averaging just 161 yards a game when they have the ball (114 via the rush) and are yielding an average of 543 yards on defensive.
Still, Jones feels that since the MC coaching staff is well-versed in what Shorter does – he was 4-1 against the Hawks at Cumberlands – the Hawks must turn in a complete four-quarter outing, something that has been missing so far into the season.
Facing a Mississippi College team that has not scored at all in the second half this year, the Hawks have had their own problems carrying over what have been solid starts to the final two quarters in which opponents have outscored Shorter 54-7.
That kind of late letdown eventually led to the Hawks’ first loss of the season at AT&T Stadium nearly two weeks ago against Lone Star Conference power West Texas A&M when Shorter broke out to a 19-7 halftime lead, but could only must 23 yards in the final 30 minutes – A&M also converted three turnovers into points during the comeback – and went on to drop a 27-19 decision.
“It’s a concern, of course,” Jones said about the lack of output after halftime. “But it’s not good to continually talk to the team about it. “We have some ideas and feel like we can overcome it.
“I do know that our players want to do it and want to win,” he said. “We have to adjust better at halftime.”
Offensively, the Hawks will play their first GSC test averaging just 269 in total yards and 212 yards rushing a game, figures that had it not been for their second-half maladies would be nearly doubled if they had kept up their first-half pace.
Senior quarterback Eric Dodson leads Shorter’s ground game having rushed for 223 yards on 40 carries and two touchdowns, while sophomore fullback B.J. McCoy was carried the ball a GSC-leading 61 times for 185 hard-fought yards and a pair of TDs. Senior slotback Kirk Wilson has added to Shorter’s offensive output averaging 109 all-purpose yards a game.
On the other side of the ball, Shorter’s defensive is hoping to add to what has been a strong start to the year, with the Hawks allowing teams an average of 350 yards a game and only 96 yards a game on the ground, third best in the GSC.
It has been, however, the Hawks’ pass defense that has emerged as one of the best in Division II as the unit has combined for 10 interceptions in three games, tied for the national lead in the category, while junior safety Jordan Shaw tops the national DII list with six picks.
Every aspect of what the Hawks do, Jones stressed, must remain at a high level throughout the night as the coach and the team clearly understand they can ill-afford to take the Choctaws lightly.
“It will be a battle for us,” Jones said. “We can’t overlook them at all.”
GAME NOTES: The “Blue Out” game in which fans are encouraged to wear Shorter blue, is designated as Championship Thursday with last year’s National Christian College Athletic Association national title teams being honored – men’s and women’s indoor and outdoor track, softball and women’s tennis… The Hawks’ coaching staff will be wearing armbands and patches as part of the American Football Coaches Association’s “Coach To Cure MD” initiative in which the AFCA partners with Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy, the largest national charity devoted exclusively to Duchenne muscular dystrophy… The game will once again be broadcasted on 99.5 FM The Jock and will be live-streamed with links available to both at www.goshorterhawks.com.