It’s taken John L. Smith less than a season to make history as head coach at Kentucky State University.
On Saturday, the Thorobreds will play for the first time in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference football championship game.
Kentucky State joined the SIAC in 1997 and has never won a league title.
“We have to go into this game with focus,” said Smith, the former University of Louisville coach who took over the Thorobreds after last season. “This would be very special for these guys to go out as conference champions. We’re going to have to leave it all out on the field in all three aspects.”
West Division champion Kentucky State (4-6 overall, 4-3 SIAC) will meet East Division winner Fort Valley State (4-6, 4-3) in the Cramton Bowl at Montgomery, Ala., at 7 p.m.
The teams have met previously this season, a 26-10 Kentucky State victory at FVSU on Oct. 8.
The secret to KSU’s success is its ranking as the No. 1 red zone defense in the SIAC. Opponents have scored only 26 times in 42 opportunities and have committed four turnovers.
In the final regular season game, senior linebacker Travon Spencer became the first Thorobred to eclipse 100 tackles in a season (he has 103) since Kentucky State has been playing NCAA Division II football. Senior safety Vince Edwards has 68 tackles this season, and junior cornerback Ryan Luckett has forced three fumbles.
Kentucky State lost its first three games and four of its first five under Smith, scoring 44 total points, but has turned the corner since. The Thorobreds have averaged 24 points in winning three of their last five. Against SIAC opponents, Kentucky State ranks No. 2 in the league in rushing at 164 yards per game.
Senior running back Reginal Harris is the No. 4 rusher in the conference with 592 yards and is fourth in touchdowns with seven. Harris is coming off a career performance against Benedict College, in which the Miami, Fla. native carried 18 times for 195 yards and scored twice. He averaged 10.8 yards per carry against the Tigers, and he caught three passes for 34 yards and another touchdown.
“Our offense has continued to get better as the season has progressed, because they played together, and that’s usually how it goes, once guys play together, the unit gets better as a whole,” Smith said. “Our running game with Reggie (Harris), Lavelle (Cloyd), and Darmontre (Warr) have done a good job of making guys miss, because they’re good athletes. Plus, we’ve had the same five guys over these last five games up front, blocking for them, and it has helped us.”
Smith was named SIAC Coach of the Year on Friday. The coach’s biggest win came at nationally ranked Tuskegee, 10-9, on Oct. 22. The game put KSU in the driver’s seat to win the league’s division title.
Also Friday, KSU quarterback Jules St. Ge was named SIAC Freshman of the Year. The Lakeland, Fla, native generated 1,172 yards of total offense in 2016. His best game came against Fort Valley State, when he went 10-of-17 passing for 194 yards and a touchdown.
Six other Thorobreds received SIAC honors. Senior running back Reginal Harris, sophomore offensive lineman Marcus Campbell Jr. and senior place-kicker Bill Rose were named to the second team for the second year in a row. Senior linebacker Travon Spencer, senior defensive back Vince Edwards and junior defensive lineman Rodriguez Jones also made the second team.
SIAC championship game: Kentucky State vs. Fort Valley State
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Montgomery, Ala.
TV: Aspire Network (Channel 321 on DirecTV)
Radio: Heritage Sports Network (Broadcast link on KSUThorobreds.com)