North Greenville QB Willy Korn (15), who transferred to the Crusaders a year ago after leaving Clemson, hung 63 points on the Rams on Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Division II playoffs en route to a 63-14 win. (Reginald Christian/Albany State University)
TIGERVILLE, S.C. — This time it really is over.
The Albany State Rams traveled 330 miles to Tigerville, S.C., on Saturday to face North Greenville in the opening round of the Division II playoffs and came back with their biggest loss in postseason history.
Behind star quarterback Willy Korn, the No. 3 seed Crusaders (10-2) crushed the No. 6 seed Rams (8-4), 63-14.
As surprising as it was for the Rams to make the playoffs for the eighth straight season after losing their conference championship game to Miles last Saturday, it was even more stunning the way their season ended at Younts Stadium.
“Very, very surprised,” ASU senior safety Rashad McRae said. “I thought this would be a close ball game. … I (certainly) didn’t expect it to be by this margin.”
Who could have expected this?
After the 49-point blowout, which was the worst loss for Mike White in his 12 years as coach of the Rams and the third-worst loss in school history, ASU was still looking for answers about what went wrong.
“I really thought we were ready to play and make a better game of it than that,” White said. “A lot of that falls right on my shoulders. With what we experienced last week, we really felt rejuvenated. Monday, we had a good meeting and had a good practice Tuesday. I just thought we would show up a lot better than that.”
Instead, the Crusaders, who now advance to play No. 2 seed Mars Hill (N.C.) in the second round of the D-II playoffs, crushed the Rams nearly every way possible. They outgained the Rams on offense (453-309), they won the turnover battle (4-0), they converted 8-of-12 third downs and they ran both a punt and kickoff back for touchdowns.
“Special teams, turnovers, missed tackles. We were all over it (Saturday),” White said. “I would be lost for words to find what we did right (Saturday). We didn’t play well.”
The Rams came into the game looking to prove they belonged among the other 23 Division II playoff teams, but instead they proved just how much of a toll 12 games in 12 weeks — with no bye — can take on a team.
ASU battled injuries and unexpected personnel losses all season, but with running backs Adrian Alexander and Luther Edwards missing the game due to a last-minute illness and injury, respectively, it seemed as if the Rams’ lack of depth finally caught up with them.
As soon as the teams stepped on the field, ASU looked overmatched. The Rams forced a punt on North Greenfield’s first possession — the only time the Crusaders punted in the entire first half — but ASU failed to capitalize when Stanley Jennings threw an interception on his first pass.
It was a near-perfect throw to receiver Mark Bell, who let the pass deflect off his hands and right to Isaiah Johnson, setting up the game’s opening touchdown — an Idris Anderson 9-yard run with 6:10 left in the first quarter.
It also set the tone for the game.
“Our goal was to not let them go up on us, because we knew they had a high-powered offense,” Jennings said. “And on our side of the ball, we were trying to control the time and run the ball. And they did a good job stopping the run.”
It took the Crusaders, who reached the playoffs the first year the independent D-II school was eligible, nearly eight minutes to score again, but once Teryan Rucker bounded in for a 15-yard rushing TD the landslide really started coming down on the Rams.
In the final nine minutes of the half, North Greenville scored four touchdowns — a 10-yard TD pass from Korn to Sean Wright, a 62-yard punt return by Johnson, a 22-yard run by Marcus Wilson and a 75-yard kick return by Cedric Proctor.
ASU’s only first-half points came from a Jennings 1-yard touchdown.
“One thing we knew this season is we couldn’t allow teams to jump on us quick,” White said. “They jumped right out on us, on top of us. We got behind, and it snowballed from there.”
North Greenville coach Jamey Chadwell said all of those early special teams and defensive plays demoralized the Rams, who were making mistakes all over the field.
“Isaiah comes out and gets a pick right away and sets the tone. The defense set the tone from the get-go,” Chadwell said. “To get that many turnovers and to score twice on special teams I think really took their will.”
Jennings, who threw for 224 yards on 12-for-25, tossed three interceptions, the short-handed Rams backfield ran for negative 11 yards and there were missed tackles and dropped passes from start to finish.
And the Rams couldn’t figure out how to defend Korn, who started his career at Clemson before transferring to Marshall and then North Greenville, and his spread option offense.
Korn threw for 144 yards and two TDs, completed passes to six different receivers and ran for 25 yards. Korn has been the difference-maker all season for the Crusaders, who had a 148-unaswered points streak broken when ASU scored its first touchdown.
“Your defense and your alignment is pretty much out of whack (playing against Korn),” McRae said. “It’s just the little things that happened (Saturday) on the special teams that got us in this situation.”
Korn said his team’s focus is now squarely on Mars Hill, which was the only Division II team to beat North Greenville this season.
“We have to enjoy this victory for a couple of hours and then get ready for the next one,” said Korn, who turned the ball over three times in North Greenville’s regular-season loss to Mars Hill.
The Crusaders scored two more times in the third quarter on a 7-yard pass from Korn to Freddie Martino Jr., and a 30-yard interception return by Jereme Green.
In the fourth quarter, both teams stuck in their backup quarterbacks — ASU’s Blaize Schaeffer and North Greenville’s Aaron Seigler — and each led their team to a touchdown. Schaeffer threw a 1-yard TD pass to Darius Nelson, and Seigler ran for a 33-yard TD.
It was a demoralizing way to end the season for the Rams, who began the year with high expectations and were ranked as high No. 6 in the nation after the second game of the season.
White said both final losses — last week’s last-second defeat against Miles and Saturday’s setback against North Greenville — were tough to swallow.
“Both of them sting,” he said. “Our first goal was to win the conference, and our next goal was to get in the playoffs. We were so happy coming to Tigerville to play, but we just didn’t show up (Saturday). I take the blame for that one, but we will be back. We will be back.”
NOTES: Saturday's defeat was the Rams' third-worst lost in program history. The worst was a 66-7 loss to South Carolina State in 1965, while the second-worst loss was to Tuskegee, 56-6, in 1991.