Winston-Salem State has one more game to right the ship before it heads into CIAA play.
The Rams (0-2) will take on the Tuskegee Golden Tigers (1-1) at 1 p.m. on Saturday (WSNC 90.5) in their final nonconference game of the season. On Sept. 28, WSSU will open conference play at Virginia Union.
Robert Massey, the Rams’ interim head coach, says the team has a nothing-to-lose attitude as it makes the nearly seven-hour bus trip to Alabama.
“We have to have that mindset because we know what areas have held us back in our first two games,” Massey said. “We have to clean up the penalties and we have to put together two good halves. We have yet to do that so the goal is be more consistent.”
The series between the Rams and Tigers is tied 3-3 with the Tigers winning the most-recent meeting in 2015. That game also was played in Alabama.
It was 20 years ago when the Rams beat the Tigers in the 1999 Pioneer Bowl in Atlanta at the Georgia Dome.
Massey is optimistic about the Rams turning around their season. A win on Saturday would be a step in the right direction.
‘We don’t have anything to lose so I hope we go down there and play our hearts out,” Massey said.
Here are five things to watch heading into the game:
1. Will Dominique Graves bounce back?
For the first time since he grabbed the starting quarterback position midway through last season, Graves, a sophomore, looked pedestrian in last week’s loss to Catawba. He bounced some throws that he usually makes in his sleep, and never got into a rhythm.
It’s a good bet Graves will bounce back, and if the Rams' offense can find a good balance between the run and the pass that should make it even easier for Graves.
2. WSSU’s injuries are minimal
Usually when a team starts the season 0-2, injuries can be seen as a cause. The Rams, however, are healthy.
Only one prospective starter, defensive lineman Tharon Ingram, has missed a game. Ingram missed last week’s game against Catawba, but Massey expects him back for Saturday’s game.
In the preseason, WSSU lost fullback Reggie Caldwell.
“We’ve been really good on guys staying healthy and rehabbing their bumps and bruises,” Massey said. “That’s a good sign for us as we get into this game and then the conference season.”
3. Tuskegee at home is pretty good
Willie Slater of the Tigers, one of the best coaches in Division II, doesn’t lose often at home. During his 14 years as head coach, the Tigers are an impressive 43-8 at Cleve L. Abbott Memorial Alumni Stadium.
Another factor favoring the Tigers is the heat and humidity that’s expected for the Saturday afternoon game. While it’s been humid around Winston-Salem all month, it’s a little more difficult to play in those conditions on the road.
4. WSSU's defense still confident
Though the two straight losses might not indicate it, the WSSU defense has been solid. In the UNC Pembroke loss, the defense was on the field way too long, and in the loss to Catawba a costly roughing the passer penalty on Catawba’s game-winning drive was pivotal.
If the offense can sustain a few more drives on Saturday and keep the WSSU defense off the field, then the losing streak could end.
“We have to execute better because our defense is playing lights out,” said wide receiver Chandler Belk. “That’s been a major focus for our offense this week is sustaining more drives.”
5. Stopping the run
The Tigers, who lost 38-31 to Alabama State and beat Kentucky State 13-7, like to run the ball. The Rams gave up just 167 rushing yards in last week’s loss to Catawba as the Indians averaged 4.1 yards a carry.
It’s well known the Rams’ secondary is one of the best in the CIAA — led by All-America Daryus Skinner (11 interceptions last season). But if the line can establish itself, then the Tigers will be forced to pass.
“We always want to force teams to throw it,” Massey said. “And that’s with whoever our opponent is.”