Albany State running back Nathan Hoyte and the Rams have had laser-like focus all week during practice since getting new life in the playoffs. The No. 6-seeded Rams traveled 330 miles this week to Tigerville, S.C., where they will face No. 3 North Greenville in the first round today at 1 p.m. with a spot in the D-II quarterfinals on the line. (email@example.com)
TIGERVILLE, S.C. -- The Rams are hearing the doubters all over the place.
They hear the whispers telling them their season should already be over. They hear the voices from nearby teams that are sitting at home this weekend with better records in tougher conferences.
So when Albany State plays North Greenville in today's NCAA Division II playoff opener in Tigerville, S.C., it's all about the Rams proving they belong.
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WHO: Albany State (8-3) at North Greenville (9-2).
WHAT: Opening round of the Division II playoffs, first meeting between Albany State and North Greenville.
WHEN: 1 p.m. today.
WHERE: Tigerville, S.C.
RADIO: 98.1 FM.
FOLLOW ONLINE: Herald Albany State Beat Writer John Millikan will be on hand at the game posting constant updates twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports.
IF WIN: Will face No. 1 seed Mars Hill (N.C.) University on Nov. 26 in Mars Hill, N.C.
"We have to prove to everybody that there is a reason we are in the playoffs," senior defensive lineman Antorio Wells said. "People want to talk and say Valdosta (State) should be in, or Morehouse should be in. But we are the team that's in, so we need to prove why we are here."
ASU lost last weekend to Miles in the conference championship game, but the Rams' season was resurrected with a surprise berth in the playoffs. And they desperately want to make this second chance count.
"We didn't come back just to practice for a week," senior safety Jamarkus Gaskins said.
Even though this is the 12th game in 12 weeks for the Rams (8-3), they came out earlier this week to practice with a second wind and seeming rejuvenated. However, they have been challenged with preparing for a North Greenville (9-2) team that can put some serious points on the board during the course of a game.
The Crusaders, led by former Clemson quarterback Willy Korn, average 37.9 points per game (12th in the nation), 250 rushing yards per game (10th) and 439 total yards per game (23rd).
The Rams' "Dirty Blue" defense, which is sixth in the nation at stopping the run, hasn't faced an offense this dangerous yet this year, but said this week that they're ready for the challenge.
"Practice has been intense," Gaskins said. "We have that edge back since someone finally beat us. We are ready to fight back."
The No. 6 seed Rams will be fighting back against a spread option offense that has helped the No. 3 seed Crusaders outscore their last four opponents -- all wins -- 177-20.
"It's hard to simulate that," ASU coach Mike White said of the spread-option offense. "They can run it so much faster and efficient (than we do in practice), so it's hard to prepare for it. You just do the best you can."
North Greenville coach Jamey Chadwell admitted Wednesday that ASU's defense is easily the "most athletic and talented" his team will have faced all season.
"Our guys realize that for us to have a chance, we have to play our very best. Albany can not play its best and still beat a lot of teams," Chadwell said. "When we get our chances to score, we have to take advantage of them. We can't settle for field goals or not getting points in the red zone."
Holding the Crusaders to field goals is exactly the plan, White said.
"I don't think we are going to shut them down," White said. "For us to have a chance, we can't allow them to have big numbers like they have been having. I think if they have their way offensively, we will be in trouble."
Korn is a big reason why the Crusaders are having what Chadwell called their best season in school history. To go along with his running ability, the senior is averaging 209 passing yards per game and has thrown 21 touchdowns and just eight interceptions.
But Gaskins and the rest of the defense aren't intimidated by Korn, who was the starter at Clemson his sophomore season before losing that job and transferring to Marshall and then eventually North Greenville.
"He better hope he has a big-time O-line (protecting him)," said Gaskins, who leads the conference in sacks this season with 15.
That's the kind of attitude the Rams are bringing with them to South Carolina, where they will be playing in the playoffs for the eighth straight year against a team that wasn't even eligible for the playoffs until this season.
"We aren't going to be intimidated," Wells said. "We just plan on going up there and taking care of business and playing a hard-fought game."
If they do, the winner of today's game will advance to the second round of the playoffs to face No. 2 seed Mars Hill (N.C.), which received a first-round bye.