Kentucky State defenders Jacquan Persley (28) and Kenny Townsend (95) can’t stop Albany State receiver Orion Ponder from scoring one of his two TDs Saturday during the Rams’ 57-31 romp against the Thorobreds in the Circle City Classic at Lucas Oil Stadium. (Reginald Christian/Albany State University)
INDIANAPOLIS -- This time, there was calm before the storm.
But a flurry of points in the fourth quarter -- including a 34-second stretch when Albany State and Kentucky State both scored touchdowns on three consecutive plays -- helped lift the No. 13-ranked Rams to a 57-31 victory Saturday in the 28th annual Circle City Classic at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"It was wild in here," ASU coach Mike White said. "It was wild."
Everybody expected a shootout between the two most explosive passing offenses in the SIAC, but the four defensive and special teams touchdowns were a surprise. Nonetheless, the win was ASU's highest-scoring game since a 58-0 victory against Clark Atlanta in 2004.
And although the Rams built a 29-13 halftime lead, the chaos began after a scoreless third quarter.
ASU sophomore cornerback Brandon Brown started things with a 35-yard interception return, KSU responded immediately with a 91-yard kickoff return touchdown and ASU sophomore receiver Orion Ponder completed the trifecta by returning the ensuing kickoff for an 89-yard touchdown. Because it wasn't clear when the fireworks would end, the announced crowd of 36,831 roared when the Thorobreds returned the next kickoff past midfield but was stopped just short of making it three in a row.
"We just needed a score because they were pretty much coming back," said Ponder, who emphatically dove for the left pylon from the 5-yard line after racing down the sideline during his electric return. "We needed a score, so I stepped up and scored for us."
It was a complete team effort for the Rams (4-1, 2-0 SIAC), who extended a 10-game winning streak against SIAC opponents and an eight-game winning streak against KSU (3-2, 0-1 SIAC).
Both schools relied on the spread offense, and the Thorobreds found success throwing the ball. KSU senior quarterback Jerrel Noland went 36-of-65 for 433 passing yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions, but the Rams were OK giving up yards if they weren't giving up points.
ASU relied on a 4-1-6 defensive alignment that prevented deep passes and allowed senior free safety Jamarkus Gaskins to wreak havoc across the field. He demonstrated his athleticism during a three-play span when he made consecutive tackles on opposite sidelines before leaping to deflect a third-down pass.
"Gotta play full speed," Gaskins said. "That's just how we play football."
The Rams built their large lead by recovering fumbles on two consecutive plays from scrimmage in the first quarter, including a 32-yard touchdown return by freshman safety and former Monroe star Larry Whitfield. Gaskins forced the first fumble by grabbing Noland's jersey and spinning him to the artificial turf for a sack. The Thorobreds also coughed it up on their next offensive play on a wayward pitch recovered by junior linebacker Demonte Queen.
"We came out hard," Gaskins said. "We practiced hard all week, and we said, 'If we can get our hands on the ball, we're going to get our hands on the ball and make some plays with it.' "
The highlight of the game, however, may have come in the fourth quarter with the game well in hand for ASU. On a fourth-and-22, Jennings threw a 24-yard hook-and-lateral pass to Ronnie Tubbs, who pitched the ball to Adrian Alexander for the score with 9:02 to play. When asked if he had ever witnessed a quarter of football like that, White managed a wry grin and said, "I'm the defensive coordinator. No. Nothing like that. This is super; it's a great atmosphere. It was worth those 12 hours on the bus."
The Rams also received consistent pressure from junior defensive end Justin Blash, who knocked down a pass at the line, recorded a sack and forced Noland to fit passes through tight windows. Junior linebacker Bruce Ryles added two big plays in the second half, reading the quarterback's eyes to intercept a pass one drive then later sniffing out a fake punt attempt.
Senior quarterback and reigning SIAC Player of the Year Stanley Jennings, meanwhile, was mortal Saturday -- sacked four times while finishing 9-of-27 for 180 yards and three touchdowns -- but junior running back Nathan Hoyte helped pick up the slack with 104 rushing yards on 14 carries.
"We were inconsistent there for a while," White said. "Offense stopped playing, defense was playing well. But the guys hung in there and were able to separate ourselves. This is a very hyped atmosphere, and I think the guys kind of rose to the occasion."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report