This Battle of the Bay will be for more than pride
Hampton University quarterback David Legree feels ready and more prepared to lead his team this season. (Rob Ostermaier, Daily Press / August 13, 2011)
That will change Saturday.
The Pirates (3-2, 1-1 MEAC), one of three teams with just one conference loss, travel across the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel to face the Spartans, in first place in the league at 5-1 and 3-0, for the 49th time. Both teams — full, as always, of former area high school teammates and rivals who wait all season to go up against each other — have hopes of winning out and claiming a conference championship and automatic FCS playoff berth.
"This is all the stuff I heard about coming here, about how big this game is," said HU senior quarterback David Legree, who transferred to Hampton from Syracuse in 2009. "The past two years that I've been here, it wasn't really to that magnitude."
Legree's first Battle of the Bay experience was one he'd just as soon forget. Splitting time behind center with Herb Bynes, Legree was 3-for-9 for 58 yards as the Spartans pulverized the Pirates 46-6.
Last year, Legree went 8-for-19 for 129 yards in a defensive slugfest that Hampton won 7-6.
It's a safe bet that Saturday's game will feature more than 13 combined points. The Spartans lead the MEAC with 406.3 yards of offense per game, while Hampton is a close second with 396.8. Norfolk State senior quarterback Chris Walley leads the league with 232.5 passing yards per game, with Legree hot on his heels with 229. And Legree's 278.6 yards of total offense per game are tops in the conference — just ahead of Walley's 255.7.
"I'm not really too much worried about the stats," Legree said. "The only stat I'm worried about is win or loss."
The last time the Battle of the Bay outcome had any measurable impact on the top of the league standings was in 2007, when the Spartans upset the Pirates 20-19 on Oct. 13, thanks to a blocked extra point and a missed field goal in the final 27 seconds. But Norfolk State was denied its first MEAC title with a 28-21 loss at Delaware State on Nov. 10 that gave the Hornets the championship and the playoff bid.
"Our kids started believing in 2007, when we played for the championship," said Norfolk State coach Pete Adrian, who credits the 19 seniors — many of them fifth-year players — on this year's team with the Spartans' success. "We knew we had a good football team coming back, and we're showing it. Now the key is to try to continue it."
Adrian may have expected good things from his team this year, but the Spartans were picked to finish fifth in a preseason poll of conference coaches and sports information directors after going 6-5 in 2010. That finish, though, came on the heels of 2009's 7-4 record, and means that with their next win, the Spartans will post three consecutive winning seasons.
"You've got to believe in the system," senior fullback Josh Alford said. "That's what we've been doing. (People) don't even put us in the top still. They think everybody else is going to run all over us. I hate to hear that, but I like to be the underdog, because we surprise everybody. When we win the MEAC, we'll surprise everybody."
An Oct. 20 game against defending MEAC champion Bethune-Cookman and a Nov. 11 regular-season finale against Morgan State (3-3, 2-1) are the Spartans' stiffest challenges to reaching that goal, while Hampton has a Nov. 19 date with Morgan State and a Nov. 5 meeting with Howard (3-3, 2-2) still on its schedule. A win Saturday will send one of the teams into the second half of its schedule with a conference championship firmly in its sights.
"This is the perfect opportunity," HU senior wide receiver Dyrri McCain said. "It's set for both Hampton and Norfolk State to be the No. 1 team in the conference."
Saturday also will pit the conference's No. 2 and No. 3 rushers against each other in Norfolk State's Takeem Hedgeman (75.5 yards per game) and HU's Antwon Chisholm (73.4), and the league's top two field-goal kickers in the Spartans' Ryan Estep (13-of-13 on field goals, 9.2 points per game) and the Pirates' Taurean Durham (6-of-9, 7 ppg).
"That's why you play the game, for games like this," Adrian said. "The team that walks off the field with a victory can feel very good about it, because they know whoever wins beat a good football team."
49th Battle of the Bay
WHO: Hampton (3-2, 1-1 MEAC) at Norfolk State (5-1, 3-0).
WHEN: 4 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Dick Price Stadium, Norfolk.