Alabama State faces one more difficult task in Tuskegee rivalry game

Reggie Barlow has led Alabama State to its first winning season since 2005, and into the Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Game on Dec. 11 at Birmingham, Ala.

But there’s still more work to do.

Namely, Thursday’s Turkey Day Classic, a local rivalry game against Tuskegee. The temptation is to overlook this Division II school, something Barlow is guarding closely against.

“Tuskegee beat (Alabama State’s looming SWAC title match foe) Texas Southern,” Barlow said. “They are good. We will have our work cut out for us.”

His 7-3 Hornets are trying to construct their first five-game winning since 2005, as well. Back then, Alabama State was coming off a pair of SWAC Championship Game appearances, having won it all in 2004. But even in good times, their struggles with Tuskegee, in an always emotional contest, are legendary. The Tigers have won 11 of the last 13 Turkey Day Classics, including a devastating 21-0 shutout last year.

Kickoff is at 3 p.m. Thursday, in a game to be nationally broadcast on ESPNU from the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Ala.

“The Turkey Day Classic has always been one of my favorites, growing up here in Montgomery,” said Barlow, an Alabama State alum. “I remember going as a young guy and then playing in it. It’s big rivalry, and it means a lot to us and to our alumni.”

Though young at quarterback, Alabama State boasts a offensive group that has shown it can explode in the running game. Quendarius McKibben and Andrew Pitts memorably rushed for a season-high 212 yards in the Magic City Classic; Pitts was then named FCS player of the week by the Heritage Sports Radio Network. The Hornets defense, meanwhile, has collected 19 interceptions, led by Kejuan Riley’s seven picks — tops in the championship subdivision. Riley needs just one more tie for second in the school’s all-time single-season record book. Defensive end Jimmy Daniels has added 16 1/2 tackles for a loss and five quarterback sacks.

[Alabama State believed in its SWAC title dream, even during 2010’s awful skid.]

The Hornets will face a rested Tuskegee that has been off since Nov. 6, when the Tigers topped Lane for Coach Willie Slater’s 50th win in five years. His team got to 8-2 on the strength of an impressive group of defenders, ranked eighth nationally in total defense and 11th in scoring defense. Tuskegee is plus-15 in turnovers, even as Nykeem Barton has rushed for 17 touchdowns on just 82 carries — putting him on pace to end the year as the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference’s leading scorer.

“They have a great legacy, a great history, an aura like the Dallas Cowboys,” Alabama State offensive coordinator Melvin Spears said this week. “They play fast, they play hard. You’re going to have to match their intensity in order to be successful. They’re a very scrappy defense that will cause you problems, because they make very few mistakes.”

Tuskegee leads the all-time series 59-33-4, and has also dominated since the game became known as the Turkey Day Classic, 47-31-3. The Hornets’ most recent win, a 17-13 decision in 2008, came after a controversial out-of-bounds call on Tuskegee’s game-winning catch. Game officials later issued an apology for the blown call.

“Tuskegee, I love that team,” Barlow said. “I’ve always loved Tuskegee and how they play. Their guys are competitors to the bitter end. They play fast, with outstanding effort and passion. This game, it’s that whole (upset) mindset. They look at like it like ‘we’re a D-II school’ and they build it up. We have to motivate our guys for that.”

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