Albany State RB Nathan Hoyte holds onto the ball during a key play late against Miles on Saturday. ASU also held on for the win, 34-27. (Birmingham News/Special to The Herald)
FAIRFIELD, Ala. -- Just when it looked as if Albany State had lost its identity Saturday night against Miles, the Rams dug deep into the artificial turf at Albert J. Sloan-Alumni Stadium and found it.
It came in the form of a Justin Blash fumble recovery in the third quarter. It arose again when the Rams forced the Miles offense into three-and-outs on two of its final three possessions. And it re-appeared for a final time when Rashad McRae picked off a David Thomas pass in the Golden Bears' end zone with 1:30 left in the game.
The defense showed up -- finally.
It was that defense -- that ability to land a series of knockout punches when the Rams were against the ropes -- that gave Albany State (3-1, 1-0) a 34-27 victory in the SIAC opener for both teams.
And it was McRae's interception that iced the game and ended a potential game-tying drive.
"It looked like an underthrown ball," McRae said. "We just had to make a play on the ball, and I made a play on the ball."
The Albany State defense gave up 21 points in the first 20 minutes of the game and allowed Miles (1-3, 0-1) to put more points on the scoreboard in the first 30 minutes than it had scored in any game this season.
"It was all about going into halftime and making adjustments," said McRae, who had seven tackles. "It's all about the coaching. (Coach Mike White) challenged us at halftime, so we stepped up to the plate and made plays."
White said: "Once the offense came back and got us back into the game, it was time for us to step up and make some plays."
ASU quarterback Stanley Jennings, the reigning SIAC Player of the Year, rallied his offense from an 11-point deficit in the second quarter. After falling behind 21-10, the Rams scored 24 of the final 30 points for their second come-from-behind win of the season.
Jennings finished the game 18-for-29 for 271 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Receiving for the Rams, Orion Ponder had two touchdowns and 90 yards, Ronnie Tubbs had 73 yards and a touchdown, Janell Jones had 50 yards and Octavius Staton had 46 yards.
"We have a great receiving corps," Jennings said. "We go to work every day, and I don't think anybody can stop us in this conference."
The Rams entered the fourth quarter with a six-point lead, but Miles running back Jordan Lewis got his third rushing touchdown of the game with 13:39 left to tie the game at 27-27.
On Albany State's ensuing possession, ASU running back Darryl Carey pounded in a 2-yard rushing touchdown, which turned out to be the game-winning score.
The Rams didn't need much offense in the second half with the way the defense was shutting down Thomas, who finished 18-for-28 with 244 yards, and the Miles offense. The Rams held Lewis to 59 rushing yards, and 42 of those came in the first half.
"That's the defending conference champs right there," Lewis said. "Great teams go in during the second half and make adjustments, and as an offense we have to come out and adjust, too."
Instead, Miles converted just 3-of-7 third downs in a second half during which the Golden Bears had several costly penalties and two crushing turnovers.
"We had a lot of mental breaks in assignments, but we are OK," first-year Miles coach Reginald Ruffin said. "We have a lot of games left."
Also shining for the Albany State offense were the running backs, who combined to rush for a season-high 146 yards. Starting tailback Nathan Hoyte had 97 yards on 14 carries --- the highest single-game total for an ASU runner this season by nearly 50 yards.
Freshman Adrian Alexander also had 47 yards on 10 carries for the Rams.
Defensively for ASU, Jamarkus Gaskins had a team-high 11 tackles and added one sack and 2.5 tackles for a loss. Larry Whitfield, Antorio Wells and Damien Goosby had sacks; and Whitfield and Bruce Ryles had eight tackles each.
On the first play from scrimmage, Thomas hit wide receiver Antonio Pitts on a 46-yard touchdown pass that was set up by a 52-yard return by Jerromy Mardis on the opening kickoff.
They were back-to-back plays that exposed two phases of the game the Rams have struggled with this season -- defending deep passes and covering kick returns.
"Every game, every game," White said about getting beat by the deep balls. "I'm not sure about what we can do about that. We have been working on that, and I guess you can say if we continue to try to improve on that. We don't have a whole lot of options there. Get back."
Brandon Hamilton got the Rams on the board for the first time with a 38-yard field goal two minutes into the game. It was Hamilton's first field goal attempt of the season. The sophomore from South Gwinnett High School in Atlanta was 2-for-2 kicking in the game, also nailing a 34-yard field goal with two minutes left in the first half.
Place kicker Tory Torstenson was 2-for-2 on extra points, and Luke Jones averaged 41 yards per punt.
It was a good game for an Albany State kicking crew that desperately needed one.
"What a night for (the kickers) to come through," White said.
After forcing a Miles three-and-out on the Golden Bears' next possession, Ponder caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from Jennings with 10:15 left in the quarter to give the Rams a 10-7 advantage.
ASU's lead lasted 15 minutes before Lewis ran in his first touchdown of the game. Another Lewis rushing touchdown with 7:24 left in the second quarter gave Miles a 21-10 lead --- its largest of the game.
Hamilton's second field goal and Ponder's second touchdown catch from Jennings with 40 seconds left in the half pulled the Rams to within two points going into the locker room.
NOTES: Saturday marked the 48th meeting between Miles College and Albany State since the series began in 1947. The Rams now lead the series, 34-11-3. Last year, Albany State beat the Golden Bears, 34-7, at ASU Coliseum in front of a crowd of 9,337. ... Miles had 23 players on its roster from Georgia, including seven defensive starters (lineman Brandon Smith from Atlanta, lineman Demetreious Shorter from Columbus, linebacker DeMarquis Johnson from Dublin, linebacker Antonio Dill from Atlanta, linebacker Corey Robinson from Macon, free safety Quentin Jones from Cairo and cornerback Justin Farrell from Atlanta) ... Saturday's game at Albert J. Sloan-Alumni Stadium was played on artificial turf. The Rams will play on artificial turf again next Saturday when they play in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ind., against Kentucky State in the Circle City Classic.