Stanley Jennings drops back to pass during Albany State’s season opener Saturday against Savannah State in Macon in the annual “Music City Classic.” Jennings faced the pressure all day from the Tigers, but responded to it each and every time, especially when it mattered most, engineering a game-winning drive with less than a minute to play for a 37-34 win. (Reginald Christian/Albany State University)
MACON — Stanley Jennings has led Albany State up and down sand dunes, in and out of huddles and near the top of the NCAA Division II world.
However, the senior quarterback may have saved his greatest moment for Saturday’s Music City Classic in Macon against Savannah State.
In the season opener for both teams, Jennings led the Rams 63 yards in the final 45 seconds for a game-winning score, capping off the drive with a 12-yard rushing touchdown that gave Albany State a come-from-behind, 37-34 victory.
“That’s too much time they gave us. I was just keeping composure,” Jennings said about the final drive. “I always had faith (that we could come back).”
Albany State improved its record against Division I Savannah State to 43-16-2, but Rams coach Mike White said he was just happy to escape with the victory.
“I told them I would rather go back and correct our mistakes with a win than go back with a loss,” White said. “We will take the win and go further. As I have been saying all along, this team has a long way to go.”
In what turned out to be a wild final two minutes that saw 22 points put on the board, Albany State and its reigning SIAC MVP quarterback stayed poised.
The Rams started that final drive with two timeouts and immediately came out firing. Jennings connected with Mark Bell for a 14-yard pass and then hit Octavius Staton on a 38-yard pass to put the Rams 12 yards away from the end zone.
The Rams’ next two plays were incomplete passes, setting up a third down with 24 second left in the game — with only one man the Rams could go to in that situation.
On a designed quarterback draw, Jennings took the ball up the middle, avoided a series of tacklers and crossed the goal line with 19 seconds left on the clock.
“I was thinking, ‘Don’t let nobody catch me,’ ” said Jennings, who threw for 240 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 25 yards and a score. “I had to show my O-linemen I wasn’t slow. I told them that the defense needed us. We had them on our shoulders the whole time, so we needed to come through for them.”
When Albany State jumped out to a 19-0 lead, it looked as if the Rams would roll to their 15th straight win in the 80-year rivalry. But Savannah State had other ideas, scoring 27 of the next 30 points and taking a 27-22 lead with 11:29 left in the game.
Albany State retook the lead with 1:20 remaining when starting running back Darryl Carey pounded in a 6-yard rushing touchdown. Jennings connected with Darius Nelson on the ensuing two-point conversion to give the Rams a 30-27 lead.
“We wanted it, we expected it and we believed,” said Carey, who finished the game with 51 rushing yards and two touchdowns. “Let’s talk about that offensive line. They fought. Without them, I couldn’t have done anything. They kept fighting. Stanley kept fighting.”
But Savannah State and its first-year head coach Steve Davenport had an answer. On the next drive, Tigers quarterback A.J. DeFilippis completed a 45-yard pass to Byron Leggett, and then hit Dylan Cook for a 25-yard touchdown pass that put Savannah State back on top, 34-30.
Savannah State’s lead lasted just 32 seconds before Jennings’ game-winning touchdown.
“Albany State did a hell of a job of executing their offense,” Davenport said. “We would have loved to make one big play and get the ball back and sit on it for the rest of the game. But you have to tip your hat to the guys who were executing.”
It was all Albany State to start the game.
Jennings floated a 20-yard pass over the left shoulder of Ronnie Tubbs into the corner of the end zone on the Rams’ opening drive, giving Albany State a 6-0 lead six minutes into the game after kicker Brandon Hamilton missed the PAT.
Touchdowns on a 1-yard run by Carey and an 11-yard pass from Jennings to Staton then gave the Rams a 19-0 lead with 13 minutes left in the second quarter, and it looked as if Albany State had picked up right where it left off after last season when it finished 11-1, won the SIAC title and was named SBN Black College National Champions.
“I was feeling composed, calm and collective,” Jennings said of his first-half performance. “But I think we got a little too relaxed. We were figuring we were going to blow them out.”
Albany State’s complacency showed on the opening kickoff of the second half. Davenport surprised the Rams with an onside kick, which SSU recovered.
The Tigers turned that recovery into a 26-yard field goal by Derek Williams, who had also hit a school-record 52-yard field goal in the second quarter.
Albany State’s Tory Torstenson hit a 40-yard field goal on Albany State’s next possession, but that was one of just a few bright spots for the Rams’ special teams, which had a field goal and punt blocked and missed two extra points.
“We didn’t expect (the onside kick), but we work on that all the time,” White said. “It should not have happened. We do the same thing to our coverage team all the time, so we will have to go back and look at the film. The blocked punt, all the missed PATs, just a lot of special teams break downs (Saturday). We had enough mistakes on special teams to last us the entire year.”
After Torstenson’s field goal, Savannah State scored the next three touchdowns of the game — a five-yard pass from DeFilippis to running back Justin Babb, a 9-yard blocked punt return by Reginald Givens and a 64-yard pass from DeFilippis to Lackey.
DeFilippis threw for 315 yards and three touchdowns, while Babb led the Tigers’ rushing attack with 37 yards on 16 carries. Lackey was Savannah State’s leading receiver with 115 yards and three catches.
“We’ve got some positives,” Davenport said. “Obviously, the pain of the loss is still kind of fresh right now. I am proud of the guys, proud of the way they fought. We just have to figure out a way to get over the humps and win the games.”
Staton was ASU’s top receiver with 85 yards and five receptions, while Tubbs had three catches for 44 yards and Janell Jones had three catches for 30 yards.
ASU plays again at 7 p.m. Saturday at home against Wingate in the Dr. Joseph Winthrop Holley Memorial Game.