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SAVANNAH, Ga. – Savannah State University's football team has a winning record in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. The Tigers are tied for fourth place in the 11-team MEAC and play third-place Hampton University at 1 p.m. Saturday at Armstrong Stadium in Hampton, Va.savn tiger2012

SSU (3-4 overall, 3-2 MEAC) and Hampton (4-4, 4-2) trail unbeatens North Carolina A&T and North Carolina Central, which are tied for first place with 6-0 records in conference play.

The Tigers are seeking their third consecutive MEAC victory. The game will be radio-broadcast by WHCJ 90.3 FM.

SSU is coming off a 31-14 victory over Norfolk State last Saturday at T.A. Wright Stadium. Hampton beat South Carolina State, 28-26, on Oct. 29 in Hampton, Va. The Pirates had a bye last Saturday and have had two weeks to prepare for the Tigers.

SSU first-year head coach Erik Raeburn said the Tigers have embraced the process of preparing and focusing each week. He and his assistant coaches essentially have shown their players a blueprint to success and everyone has followed it.

"They have trust in their position coaches," Raeburn said. "They know they're getting better each week and their coaches are trying to put them in positions to be successful. They're buying in. They're working hard. And last week, in particular, I felt like we had the concentration and focus that you need."

After beating Howard University, 31-27, on Oct. 29, SSU players celebrated but followed their "24-hour rule." When the Tigers returned to practice, everyone was focused on facing Norfolk State instead of continuing to celebrate beating Howard.

"I was really happy about it because it was an emotional win at Homecoming that could have been a distraction," Raeburn said.

SSU defensive back David Crowley, who intercepted two passes against Norfolk State, including one in the end zone with 1:32 left before halftime, said he and his teammates believe in SSU's coaching staff.

"What we do in practice helps us win games like this," Crowley said moments after the Tigers' victory. "We execute our assignments. It's the greatest feeling. You've got to feel ecstatic after all these wins. We need to keep climbing to show not only the city of Savannah and our own school, but the whole nation, that we are rising. We've gotten better. Our coaching staff came in and fixed the program up, and we have faith in them."

Crowley's assessment was a ringing endorsement of SSU's coaches. After Monday's practice, Raeburn returned the compliment.

"He is a perfect example," Raeburn said of Crowley, a junior from Jacksonville, Fla. "He just kept working and working, and all of a sudden, he's climbed his way up the depth chart. Not that he was way down the depth chart at the beginning of the season but there were some guys ahead of him.

"He's just improved a little bit every day," Raeburn continued. "John Wilson was out a couple of games with a concussion and I think Gerald (Robinson) was out as well, and so he got to start a game early in the season. He's played in every game, but the last three weeks he's really played good football for us."

SSU is playing its best football of the season right now. The Tigers did not commit a turnover against Norfolk State and they had three takeaways on defense (two interceptions and a fumble recovery). The Tigers also finished 5-of-5 in the red zone.

"The biggest keys to the game were turnovers," Raeburn said. "We didn't turn it over on offense and we had three takeaways on defense. I think probably the second-biggest was the red zone. We were perfect in the red zone. We came away with points every time. Four of the five were touchdowns.

"(Norfolk State) had four opportunities in the red zone," Raeburn continued. "They came away with two field goals and a turnover on three of their possessions. Even though they got some points, when you hold them to field goals, eventually that's going to catch up to you. Holding them to two field goals and then David (Crowley) getting the pick in the end zone, I thought that was the difference in the game, combined with us being able to punch them in."

After beating Bethune-Cookman, 16-10, on Sept. 24 at T.A. Wright Stadium, SSU lost, 19-14, to Florida A&M in Tallahassee, Fla. Raeburn said it was a teachable moment for the Tigers.

"We had the big, emotional win against Bethune-Cookman and then we just felt like, boy, that next week we weren't as crisp on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday," he said. "Everyone was so excited to get the win; first time in 16 years that we had beaten them. And everyone is telling them what an amazing game it was. It's just natural that you lose your focus a little bit and you don't prepare.

"We played terrible in the first half at FAMU and ended up still having an opportunity at the end but just didn't finish the game," Raeburn continued. "But then after the emotional win against Howard, I felt like we took a step forward and learned from our mistake. We had a great week of practice last week and that's why we were able to get the win against Norfolk."

BELL EARNS MORE HONORSsavn headshot TJ BellBell
SSU quarterback T.J. Bell this week was named the MEAC's Offensive Player of the Week, the Mutual Life BOXTOROW National Player of the Week, and the College Sports Madness MEAC Offensive Player of the Week for his performance against Norfolk State.

Bell scored all four of SSU's touchdowns against Norfolk State. The 6-foot-3, 180-pound freshman from Louisville, Ga., was 15-of-28 passing for 159 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. Bell ran 14 times for a game-high 149 yards and a touchdown.

"He played really well," Raeburn said of Bell, the MEAC's Newcomer of the Week after SSU beat Howard. "Early in the game, in the passing game, he wasn't as settled. He made a couple of throws without his feet set. But after that first possession, I felt like he looked more relaxed, more poised, and he played outstanding. He accounted for four touchdowns. He didn't turn the ball over. He was our leading rusher. He had a really fantastic game, a really complete performance."

Raeburn said his confidence in Bell and freshman quarterback Blake Dever has never wavered.

"Early in the season, people would ask me, 'How do you think the freshmen quarterbacks are progressing?'" Raeburn said. "It's like, 'Well, geez, they're under constant pressure. We're not blocking very well. It's been kind of hard. We don't have a running game for them to lean on. And our pass protection is not where it needs to be.' I didn't feel like they were playing poorly at quarterback. But, man, these last couple of games where we've played much better up front, you can see the progress and see what they're capable of doing."

Hampton is 6-0 in the series against SSU, including a 42-3 victory last season at T.A. Wright Stadium.

Hampton quarterback Jaylian Williamson leads the MEAC in passing, averaging 221 yards per game. The 5-foot-10, 200-pound graduate student from Chesapeake, Va., is 142-of-254 passing for 1,771 yards, 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions. The Pirates lead the MEAC in passing offense with a 232-yard average.

"Offensively, we face another veteran quarterback, a senior," Raeburn said. "I believe he's leading the league in passing right now. And he has maybe one of the best wide receiver combos in the league as well."

Wide receiver Rashawn Proctor leads the MEAC in both receiving yards (102 per game) and receptions (7 per game). The 5-foot-11, 201-pound senior from Hampton, Va., has 817 yards and three touchdowns on 56 catches. Wide receiver Twarn Mixson, a 5-foot-10, 166-pound redshirt junior from Charlotte, N.C., has 23 catches for 167 yards. Last season, Mixson led the MEAC with 68.3 receiving yards per game and 5.6 catches per game. He led the Pirates in receiving yards (615) and touchdowns (6).

Running back Yahkee Johnson, a 5-foot-7, 160-pound junior from Richmond, Va., has 551 yards and three touchdowns on 94 carries. Running back Eric Carter, a 5-foot-9, 210-pound redshirt sophomore from Fayetteville, N.C., has 397 yards and three touchdowns on 78 carries.

Linebacker Devin Vandyke, a 6-foot-1, 227-pound graduate student from Lorton, Va., leads the Pirates in tackles with 56.

"I think they're really talented on defense," Raeburn said. "The thing that stands out to me is how fast they are. Everyone we've played has been really athletic in the secondary. Their front seven is really athletic. I feel like all 11 guys they trot out there can really run so that will be a challenge for us up front. They have some really skilled D-linemen and linebackers for us to have to deal with."

Raeburn said SSU has not installed special defensive schemes into its game plan this season.

"Without having spring ball, and a whole new system, we're still trying to perfect all of our coverages," he said. "We're not probably to a point where we can start putting in special packages to deal with certain players and stuff. We're not going to make any drastic changes to what we're doing, defensively. We're just going to keep trying to get a little bit better and a little bit better."

~ Savannah State Sports Information


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