Alabama State’s down, not out — thanks to typically wide-open SWAC East

Alabama State isn’t giving up, despite its recent troubles. Not in the midst of an always wide-open SWAC Eastern Division.

“We’re still in this race,” said Alabama State offensive coordinator Melvin Spears, as he and head coach Reggie Barlow try to stablize a once red-hot team that’s now on a two-game losing streak. “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. If we take care of the everybody on the way, we’ll be in the championship.”

Often these Eastern races have come down to the last, and teams with multiple losses like Alabama State — standing now at 3-2 both overall and in league play — are never out of it. In fact, more than half of the East’s participants have had two or more losses since the Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Game was established in 1999.

Alabama A&M had 3 regular-season stumbles before playing in the 2000, 2006 and 2009 editions, and 2 in 2005, as well. The Bulldogs dropped just 1 regular-season before their 2002 SCG appearance. Alabama State also had 2 losses in 2003, though it too only dropped 1 regular-season game in both 2001 and 2004. Jackson State had 2 losses going into the SCG in 2007, but had 0 losses in 1999 and just 1 loss in 2008.

And, though Alcorn State is tops in the division at 2-0, there’s still a lot of football left to be played.

Neither Alcorn nor Alabama State has played Jackson State, which enters the weekend at 1-1, and claimed the East in 1999, 2007-08; or Alabama A&M (1-2), which represented the division in the 2000, 2002, 2005-06 and 2009 editions of the league title match.

[MELVIN SPEARS TALKS with TheDerisoReport.com about his plans for the offense as coordinator at Alabama State.]

Alabama State looked poised, as the 2010 campaign began, to return to the dominance it once possessed during those championship runs between 2001-04 — winning three straight league matches, including a dramatic upset of SWAC champion Prairie View.

Then something went wrong. Bad wrong. The Hornets started suffering injuries. Lots of them. Then an offense still breaking in eight new starters started making mistakes. Lots of them. That starts with quarterback Devin Dominguez. He’s a junior, but this is his initial season with the 1s — and he’s had the expected ups and downs.

Count last week as one of the down times: Dominguez opened the game against Texas Southern (2-3 overall; 2-1 SWAC) on a 1-for-7 slump, and was warming the bench by the end of the first quarter. He later returned to the game, but still finished a paltry 2-of-9 for 25 yards and two interceptions. In all, ASU tossed four picks and fumbled four times last week, losing one. The final interception led to Curtis Thomas’ 59-yard return for a score, clinching a 21-7 win for TSU — which is now led by head coach Johnnie Cole, former offensive coordinator at Alabama State from 2000-02. The Hornets were held to just 53 yards of total offense in the second half.

Dominguez faced a physical front from Texas Southern, and he had some mental breakdowns. That convinced the Barlow and Spears to increase his practice reps this week, hoping to bolster both his confidence and patience in advance of a difficult league match at Grambling on Saturday.

“We’re just trying to bring him along slowly,” Spears said. “We’re looking to get him a little more experience.”

[FROM THE TDR FILES: Melvin Spears’ time at Grambling was defined by the success he had with quarterback Bruce Eugene.]

Injuries have also played a role in Alabama State’s sudden loss of offensive rhythm. Tailback Tim Clark (concussion) is questionable for the Grambling game, and the decimated tight end position will have to be filled by a committee that includes receiver Landon Jones. Defensive tackle DreQuay Everett (knee) might not play, either.

Then, Spears notes, there is the competitive emotion that comes with playing a familiar foe. Alabama State is facing teams that understand Melvin Spears from the inside out, since he is a former assistant at Texas Southern, matriculated at Alcorn and worked for nine years at Grambling. (“It’s always a dogfight,” Spears says, chuckling.) Kickoff at Robinson Stadium against the Tigers is set for 4 p.m. Saturday. The game is being streamed over the Internet by GSUTV.

“That Texas Southern team is excellent, and Alcorn is very, very scrappy,” Spears said. “I think at the end, we will be there. We’ve just got to go out and compete against Grambling. That’s something they’ve done, and done at a high level for years. We’re still working to get there.”

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