Albany State kicker Brandon Hamilton, right, struggled earlier in the year, but he played hero for the Rams on Saturday against Clark Atlanta, going 4-for-4 on FG tries to lead ASU to the 19-13 victory. (Reginald Christian/Special to The Herald)
WAYCROSS -- When Brandon Hamilton stepped off the Albany State bus in Waycross on Saturday, everything was telling him it wasn't going to be his day.
He was worn out. His legs felt tight. He was simply unsure of himself.
"I thought I was going to struggle," Hamilton said after the SIAC East Division showdown with Clark Atlanta.
But then kick by perfect kick, the sophomore from Atlanta gained confidence, putting the Rams and their struggling offense on his back and leading them to a 19-13 victory by hitting all four of his field goal attempts.
That's right -- it was ASU's kicking game and a strong defensive performance that kept the Rams (6-2, 4-1) undefeated in the division and in the driver's seat for a trip to next month's inaugural SIAC Championship game.
"What a good day for our kickers," ASU coach Mike White said about Hamilton, punter Luke Jones and PAT specialist Tory Torstenson.
White then added: "Four true field goals (from Hamilton). There wasn't any kind of movement in them at all. They looked good."
Hamilton hit three field goals from 21, 35 and 37 yards out in the second quarter, and then finished off his day with a 28-yard field goal with 5:23 left in the game that gave the Rams a 13-point lead.
Hamilton, who was named the SIAC Special Teams Player of the Week after his two field goals against Miles on Sept. 24, said he zoned out all the distractions at Memorial Stadium during the game of his life.
"It's nerve-wracking," he said. "All eyes are on you. And if you mess up, everyone sees it. You just have to zone out and go to your own happy place. I go to my happy place. I don't hear anything. I don't hear the band. I don't hear anyone."
And with the sudden inability of ASU's offense to put the ball into the end zone, it was a perfect time for Hamilton to find his "happy place." The Rams converted just 3-of-16 third downs and had trouble moving the ball against the top-ranked scoring defense in the SIAC.
Luckily for the Rams, their defense stepped up along with their kickers and had its best game of the year, according to White. The "Dirty Blue" held the Panthers to 216 total yards and just six rushing yards.
"We definitely needed this (on defense)," White said. "Each week we have been getting better and better, and I think for us to continue to win we will have to continue to improve on defense."
The Panthers (2-7, 1-5), who remain in last place in the SIAC East Division with the loss, had few offensive statistics to be happy about after the game. Rashad Lewis had 22 rushing yards and nine carries, and quarterbacks Bryan Mann and Tyree Williams split snaps and combined to go 15-for-45 for 216 yards.
"We really just don't have a passing game or a running game," Clark Atlanta coach Daryl McNeill said. "We start three freshmen on the offensive line, so what we try to do is milk the clock and keep it close to the end. That's just one of the tactics we have."
ASU quarterback Stanley Jennings, who was benched during the final drive of the game for freshman Blaize Schaeffer, was 12-for-32 with one touchdown and an interception and said after the game that Clark Atlanta's disguised coverages and frequent blitzes made things difficult on him.
Schaeffer, a 6-foot-2, 185-pound speedster from Fairburn, came in the game for one play in the middle of the second quarter and then replaced Jennings under center for good when the Rams had a third-and-goal with 5:42 left in the game. Schaeffer's pass fell incomplete on the third-and-goal, giving Hamilton an opportunity to kick his final field goal. Schaeffer then ran the offense on ASU's final drive with the Rams leading by just six points.
The Schaeffer-directed ASU offense sputtered and gave the ball back to the Panthers, who were stymied by the Rams' defense on their final drive to end the game.
ASU offensive coordinator Uyl Joyner said the decision to mix up the quarterbacks was simply to give Schaeffer some snaps in critical situations.
"We were trying to give (Schaeffer) snaps here and there to make sure that if anything happened, he would be ready to go," Joyner said. "We just thought it was time to get him in there. We don't want to get him in there during garbage time. We want to get him in there during a time where it means something."
Joyner then clarified that Jennings, a team captain and the reigning SIAC Player of the Year, is still the starting quarterback for the Rams.
"Stanley is our guy, and he will be until he graduates," Joyner said.
Nathan Hoyte was the leading rusher for the Rams with 37 yards on 10 carries, while Orion Ponder caught five passes for a game-high 109 yards.
Both offenses had trouble moving the ball in the first half, which meant the game virtually turned into a field-goal-kicking contest, which Hamilton eventually won.
On the first play of the second quarter, Hamilton broke a 0-0 tie with a 21-yard field goal, which was followed by a Kemuel Lawrence 40-yard field goal from Clark five minutes later.
Hamilton then hit two field goals in the final 2:34 of the half to give the Rams a 9-3 lead at halftime. Lawrence brought the Panthers to within three points with a 30-yard field goal with 2:56 left in the third quarter.
The Rams finally found the end zone on a third-and-goal from the five when a diving Cessel Taylor caught a Jennings pass between a pair of Clark Atlanta defenders.
"(Taylor) was being held on that play, and I just threw it to a spot where I knew he could get to it," Jennings said. "He got there and made a pretty nice catch. He has been asking for a touchdown all year, so I gave him one."
Hamilton's final field goal gave the Rams a 19-6 lead with just over five minutes left in the game. Clark Atlanta got its lone touchdown with 4:40 left on a 35-yard pass from Williams to Darrin McPherson. Trailing by six points, the Panthers got the ball back on their own 10-yard line with two minutes to play but threw four incomplete passes to drop their fifth game in a row.
"Each game is going get tougher and tighter for us," White said. "We just have to learn as a team to be more confident and tighter as a group. We can't let mistakes and the pressure of the fourth quarter get to us."
IT'S A GIRLS' GAME, TOO: Sabrina Brunson, one of just three female officials employed by the SIAC, was a line judge during Saturday's game.
Brunson, who officiated Clark Atlanta's sideline, also works games for the Southwestern Athletic Conference and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Brunson and her two female counterparts, who have never worked the same game together, are the largest group of women officials that the SIAC has ever had.