So who are these Norfolk State guys, anyway?

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Here are the particulars for tomorrow's opponent:

Nickname:  Spartans
Conference:  Mid-Eastern Athletic (FCS)
Location:  Norfolk, VA
Enrollment:  6,000+

Norfolk State is the one and only FCS school (only one is allowed) on Kentucky's schedule.  The Spartans finished last year 7-2 in their conference (Right behind 10-0 Delaware State) and 8-3 overall.  Another school in their conference you may have heard of is Hampton, the former home of basketball transfer Matthew Pilgrim.  Having lived in the Norfolk/Newport News/Hampton area for several years, I am familiar with all these colleges and their communities.

Norfolk State has traditionally been a cellar-dweller in the MEAC, although they have recently undergone a bit of turnaround in their football program.  Last year's 7-2 mark was their best in many years, despite having the second-toughest strength of schedule in their conference, and the toughest among the top two.  Their current head coach, Pete Adrian, took over in 2005, and in two short years turned Norfolk State from a doormat into a very competitive football team, and they were ranked for the first time ever in the FCS (#23 at one point last season).  Adrian is continuing to bring talent into the program, as his 2007 recruiting class was ranked 6th among Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Norfolk State returns a resounding 16 starters from it's excellent 2007 team including 5 all-MEAC performers.  They will be breaking in a new quarterback, however, just like Kentucky.  Dennis Brown, a transfer from UConn, is their signal caller this year.  Their main weapon is likely to be a talented tailback named DeAngelo Branche, who returns from an academic red-shirt last year.  Branche averaged 5.7 yards/carry in his freshman campaign, and is plenty fast and athletic.  He ran for 93 yards and three touchdowns against Virginia State in their opening game last week.

Also dangerous is Jamar Johnson, a 6'4" wide receiver who caught 6 passes last week for 63 yards, and he is taller than any of Kentucky's cornerbacks. Dario Walker and Jeremy Wicker are smaller at 5'11" and 5'8" respectively, but both are speed merchants who can get behind the safeties if the 'Cats fail to execute.  The Spartans return four starters on the O-line, so the much-vaunted UK D-line will not be going up against a bunch of rookies.

The Spartan D-line has some experience as well, but only one full-time starter from last year.  Given the current state of Kentucky's O-line with Garry Williams out and the weakness UK has shown between the tackles, that is probably a very good thing.  The Spartans are also deep and athletic at linebacker, and return a solid defensive backfield featuring four players who started at least four games last year.

Game Overview

Norfolk State is no pushover.  They are a solid unit with good FCS talent, but unless Kentucky simply drops all focus, they should be able to easily handle the Spartans at Commonwealth.  While many sometimes joke at FBS teams playing FCS teams, we only have to go back to last year to see just how competitive these teams can be when Appalachian State upset the mighty Michigan Spartans Wolverines (who later defeated Florida in the Capital One Bowl).

Offense

We have not seen Kentucky try to really offend yet.  Last week's game was an excercise in field position management so our defense could win the game.  This game, UK could try and do the same thing, but they won't.  Hartline has to get some experience at putting points on the board, and the rest of the offense has to help him move the football.

Kentucky will no doubt try to establish the run first.  Hartline has his first-game jitters out of the way and needs to take this tiny bull by the horns and wrangle with it.  The Spartans are quick and athletic, and getting open against them will be a challenge, so the O-line has to give Hartline time to scan the field and find open men.  That should be no major task against the D-line of the Spartans, but execution is key.

Unlinke last week, the line needs to open up holes between the tackles, and the backs need to hit them --hard.  We cannot go through an SEC season struggling in the running game with the stable of backs UK currently has, so it is important for the line to dominate their smaller opponents.

Defense

Yes, Kentucky could possibly win this game with defense, but that is not what they need.  That doesn't mean the defense should be any less aggressive or dominanant, it just means that they should not try to force things.  Play smart, keep your man in front of you and look for opportunities.  The D-line should be able to get pressure on Norfolk State's quarterback, and the linebackers have to be ready to pick up safety valves and tight ends.  The defensive backfield cannot underestimate the speed and quickness of this team.

In the running game, Kentucky must make sound, sure tackles.  Norfolk state has excellent speed at the skill positions for an FCS team who are more than capable of gaining numerous yards after contact.  Brooks will not be looking for the defense to score 14 points, but he will expect them to deny the Spartans any kind of end zone access.

Conclusion

Kentucky should handle the Spartans easily, but they cannot take this team for granted.  They are much better than many people think, and they will be playing with the abandon of somebody who has absolutely nothing to lose, and they live for these kinds of games.   The 'Cats need to take care of business tomorrow, and put the Spartans away as early as possible.

Projected score:  Kentucky 35, Norfolk State 9.

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