Norfolk State is one victory shy of securing its first Football Championship Subdivision playoff appearance. Oh, so close. But not nearly as close as four years ago.
The 2007 Spartans faced Delaware State in a winner-take-all game for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference's automatic postseason bid. Entering the fourth quarter, they led 21-3.
They lost 28-21 in overtime.
"All part of the growing pains you have to go through," seventh-year coach Pete Adrian said Tuesday.
"I try to keep that in the back of my mind," linebacker Hasan Craig said. "That really hurt. It was like having your heart taken out."
Craig, a fifth-year senior, is the only member of this year's squad who played in that contest. Suffice to say, he'll share that experience with teammates as Norfolk State prepares for Saturday's game at Morgan State (5-4, 4-2).
Win and the Spartans (8-2, 6-1 MEAC) own the league title outright and advance to the playoffs. Lose and they're mired in complicated tie-breakers that could, in the event of a four-way deadlock, involve Jeff Sagarin's computer rankings.
"We try not to mention (the playoffs)," said Marcus Cooperwood, a cornerback from Bethel High, "because we don't want guys to get their heads big and lose focus."
Norfolk State looks like a championship team, and not because its uniforms resemble the Green Bay Packers'. The Spartans are seasoned — they start nine fifth-year seniors — lights out on defense and led by a dynamic quarterback.
"We have all the pieces," Cooperwood said.
Indeed, Norfolk State ranks among the nation's top 10 in the four major defensive categories: scoring, rushing, passing and total. Plus, the Spartans are 13th in sacks. Not coincidentally, among their nine FCS opponents, only Hampton (24) and Delaware State (21) scored more than 14 points.
"Our defensive line and linebackers get so much pressure on the quarterback, and opponents can't run because those guys also do the job filling gaps," Cooperwood said. "We're top-10 because of those boys. It makes our job (in the secondary) easier."
So does an efficient offense. Quarterback Chris Walley ranks second nationally in completion percentage (70.3) and has thrown 15 touchdown passes with only four interceptions. Ryan Estep has made 16-of-17 field goals and all 28 of his extra points.
"Even in his off games he's played pretty decent," Adrian said of Walley, "and he hasn't had many of those."
Adrian inherited a program that had endured eight consecutive losing seasons and had dropped 19 of its previous 21 games. The budget was shoestring, enthusiasm minimal.
"We started from ground zero," he said.
Now the Spartans bask in a third straight winning season, their fourth in the last five years.
Craig said this team found its mojo Oct. 1 against three-time defending MEAC champion and 22nd-ranked South Carolina State. Norfolk State had lost 23 of 24 previous games against top-25 opponents and trailed 7-3 late in the second quarter.
But with the Bulldogs at the Spartans' 11, linebacker Chad Battles, a Syracuse transfer from Heritage High, forced a fumble that linebacker Onyemechi Anyaugo returned 84 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. The Spartans won 17-14.
Six weeks later, Norfolk State is poised to make 2011 its most memorable season since 1984, when Willard Bailey coached the Spartans to a 10-2 record, CIAA championship and NCAA Division II playoffs.
"Our eyes are wide open," Adrian said. "(Morgan State is) playing for the same thing we are."
And should the Spartans prevail, might the NCAA pair them in the playoffs against their Norfolk neighbor Old Dominion?
"That would be cool," Craig said. "We already beat Hampton, so they'd be next in the 757."
"Gosh, man, that would be great," Cooperwood said. "That would be a good one just for the simple fact that we know so many of those guys and see them over the summer. The whole city would go crazy for that game."