Raise your hand if you thought, going into the 2011 campaign, that this week’s Norfolk State-Hampton game — known as the Battle of the Bay to locals — could set up as a season-changing event in the MEAC.
OK, everyone who works for either of those institutions, put your hands down, as well.
Yep, that’s what I thought. Nobody. No hands.
Still, here we are: Norfolk State, picked to finish fifth in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference after going 6-5 a year ago, has nevertheless charged out to a 5-1 mark — and first place in the league at 3-0 — after Saturday’s 38-21 win at Delaware State. That one loss? At FBS opponent West Virginia, a perhaps-expected 55-12 drubbing back on Sept. 10.
The Spartans come into this contest riding the hot hand of senior quarterback Chris Walley, the conference’s reigning co-offensive player of the week after passing for a career-high 327 yards against Delaware State. He’s tops in the MEAC with nearly 1,400 passing yards already, and tops in the nation with a 75 percent completion percentage. There’s been a trickle down effect too, with Norfolk State’s Xavier Boyce leading the MEAC in receiving yards and catches. Then, as teams have focused on trying to stop Walley and Co., that’s tended to open up space for Takeem Hedgeman, who is now second in the league in rushing yards per game.
South Carolina State, remember, was picked to win a fourth straight conference title in preseason polling. That was before Norfolk State beat the Bulldogs, then ranked No. 22 in black college football, 17-14 back on on Oct. 1. Result: Coach Pete Adrian and Norfolk find themselves in the MEAC driver’s seat, with four games remaining — Hampton this week, a reeling Bethune-Cookman at home on Oct. 20, then Savannah State on Nov. 5 and Morgan State on Nov. 12.
“If they beat South Carolina State, Hampton and Bethune,” South Carolina State coach Buddy Pough (3-3; 3-1) told The (Orangeburg, S.C.) Times and Democrat, “then let me tell you something: They deserve to be conference champions. I’ll pat them on the back and say ‘Go get them’ and we’ll try again next time.”
First up for Norfolk State, though, is perhaps the toughest matchup left: A difficult and emotional regional rivalry game against Hampton (3-2, 1-1 MEAC). The Pirates counter with fellow senior David Legree, who just passed for more than 300 yards in a game for the first time in his career with the Pirates, helping his team to a 28-23 win over Princeton on Saturday.
Look just below Walley on the conference stats list. Yep, that’s Legree in second with 1,154 total passing yards so far in 2011. He’s complete 64 percent of his attempts. Walley has eight touchdowns, Legreee has seven. Legree is averaging 280 yards of total offense per game, Walley is average 266.
A season-changing MEAC game between Norfolk State and Hampton? Yep.