While today’s Pioneer Bowl in Columbus, Ga. will bring down the curtain on the Elizabeth City State football season, it may also be raising one earlier than expected on the career of Casey Turner as the team’s starting quarterback.
Turner, a junior who lost an intense competition for the starting position to senior Namon Jones back in August and is the likely starter next year, may have to be the No. 1 guy today against Tuskegee (10-1).
“Namon has a bruised shoulder from the CIAA championship game and has not practiced much,” ECSU coach Waverly Tillar said. “We have Casey Turner and (third-strnger) Tyrell Houghton ready to go if he can’t play.”
While losing a quarterback before a postseason game might be a disaster for some teams, Tillar believes the Vikings (7-4), who are coming off a 34-19 loss to Winston-Salem State in the CIAA title game, will be just fine.
At the end of the duel between Jones, who backed up Creven Powell the previous two seasons, and Turner, a transfer who began his career at UConn, Tillar said that there was little difference between the two.
He is sticking by that assesment even though Turner saw action in only two games, when he performed mopup duty.
“Nothing changes with Casey in there,” Tillar said. “He and Namon mirror each other in ability and what we ask them to do.
“I feel pretty good about him. He can manage the team. That was Namon’s MO: Moving the chains and keeping us in good field position.”
It’s not likely that this game will be won by Elizabeth City State’s passing game, anyway.
While Jones performed well, he had a close-to-the-vest role as the Vikings typically tried to grind things out on the running of senior Daront’e McNeill, who holds every school rushing and scoring record.
Although it was a down season for McNeill because he was working behind a totally rebuilt offensive line, the Vikings standout still rushed for 1,197 yards and 13 touchdowns.
SIAC champ Tuskegee, which has won 10 straight games since suffering a 7-6 loss to Alabama A&M in the season opener and has won seven of its nine Pioneer Bowl appearances, is also primarily a running team.
The Golden Tigers offense revolves around Derrick Washington, a transfer from Missouri who ran for 1,494 yards and 14 touchdowns this fall. He’s legit. Before spending some time in jail on a sexual battery charge, Washington rushed for more than 2,000 yards in two seasons at Missouri.
“We know it will be a physical game in the trenches,” Tillar said. “They will pound it some. We will pound it some. Both teams want to run the football. Both backs will probably be around the 100-yard mark. Their guy is talented and so is ours.
“We’re going to be using the shoulder pads this week.”
ECSU may find the going on the ground a little tougher than Tuskegee. The Golden Tigers give up yardage — and points — reluctantly. They ranked second in the country in scoring defense (12.64 points per game) and were in the top three in defense against the run until Alabama State gained 228 yards in last week’s Turkey Day Classic won by Tuskegee 27-25.
Tillar said the Golden Tigers’ defense compares favorably with that of unbeaten Winston-Salem State, which is ranked second in the Division II national polls and is participating in the Division II playoffs.
“Their defense is athletic, runs well and is aggressive,” he said. “It’s got the kind of talent any coach would like to have. There’s a lot of Division I-caliber guys who just happened to land at Tuskegee.”
The Vikings have had nearly three weeks to prepare while the Golden Tigers were playing in the SIAC championship game and the Turkey Day Classic.
The idle time helped heal some bumps and bruises and gave the Vikings a chance to relax after a tough regular season, but there may be some question whether ECSU can execute at the same level it did when it led Winston-Salem State until the waning moments of the third quarter.
“The timing is definitely in their favor and the battle readiness is in their favor,” Tillar said. “But our guys have been refreshed. We got back into game readiness. We’re going to be doing the same things we did all year. No new wrinkles.”
The ECSU coach sees the Pioneer Bowl as an opportunity to end the season with some momentum.
“Our guys don’t feel like Winston-Salem outright beat them and they are ready for the challenge,” Tillar said. “If we win, it will show the CIAA picked the right team to be in the game and it will catapult us into next year.
“Beating a 10-1 team to end the season will be a big plus for us.”
And if the Vikings lose?
“Then we’re 7-5 ... period,” he said with a look of distaste. “Nothin’ else to say.”