ASU head football coach Mike White
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WHO: No. 23 North Greenville (0-0) at No. 22 Albany State (0-0)
WHAT: 2012 season opener for both
WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Albany State Coliseum
RADIO: 98.1 FM
FOLLOW ONLINE: For live updates, go to twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports
ALBANY — Like a thief in the night, the North Greenville football team swooped in and stunned Albany State in last season’s Division II playoffs.
The Crusaders stole the show with their opening-round 63-14 victory, outplaying ASU in nearly every aspect of the game.
Or as Albany State defensive end Troy Morgan likes to put it, they raided the Rams’ cookie jar.
“As a man and as a football player, it makes you feel like somebody came into my house and stole my cookies. And I want my cookies back,” Morgan said. “I gotta go out there and do whatever I gotta do get my cookies and to prove to everybody that we aren’t just a one-and-done team or a conference championship team.”
The Rams want their cookies back, and they also want their pride back.
That’s what is on the line today when they open the season at 7 p.m. against North Greenville (S.C.) at the Albany State Coliseum.
ASU is ranked No. 22 in the preseason Division II coaches’ poll, while North Greenville is ranked No. 23. ASU is replacing star QB Stanley Jennings, and the Crusaders’ star signal-caller Willy Korn is graduated.
There’s plenty of similarities between the two teams heading into the matchup, but the Rams have had something extra brewing during the 10 months since their worst playoff loss in franchise history: a motivation to redeem themselves.
“Taking the loss like that motivated me and my teammates to get better every day,” ASU linebacker and former Monroe star Larry Whitfield said.
The Rams have replaced Jennings with Florida Atlantic transfer David Kooi, and they think they have the right pieces surrounding Kooi to avenge that loss against the Crusaders, who aren’t just replacing Korn.
North Greenville lost both starting running backs, its starting nose guard, starting linebacker and virtually the entire secondary. The Crusaders also lost head coach Jamey Chadwell, who left for Division II powerhouse Delta State after three years and a 21-14 record at North Greenville.
Carroll McCray is on the sidelines this year, directing a North Greenville offense that will be led by freshman QB Nelson Hughes and a host of freshmen running backs. Hughes is small and speedy and can run the option, which burned the ASU defense time and again last season.
Rams coach Mike White watched Korn and the Crusaders rack up 309 rushing yards — compared to minus-11 yards on the ground for ASU — in last season’s playoff game, and he said after practice Wednesday that his defense has been working tirelessly this offseason to prepare for North Greenville’s option offense.
“We had to,” White said. “We had trouble with option teams last year. We had a terrible game last year against (North Greenville). Defending the option takes time. You have responsibilities. Moving around like we did last year caused us some problems in the option.”
Hughes is a dual-threat QB who will have eight returning receivers to throw it to. And when he wants to tuck the ball and run, he will have four returning linemen to block for him.
“We are going to have a young guy taking snaps for us under center so we want to surround him with guys who have talent and can teach him the ropes and the season progresses,” McCray said. “We have solid linemen returning and almost all of our receiving corps as well.”
The Rams had trouble with more than just the option in last season’s game against North Greenville. Quarterbacks Jennings and Blaize Schaeffer combined to throw four interceptions, the offense converted just 3-of-10 first downs and the special teams allowed both kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns.
But have the Rams improved enough from last season to keep up with North Greenville this evening?
White isn’t so sure.
“I’m not sure how far along we are,” White said. “I think this is going to take some time for this defense to gel. For this team to get better, I think this defense has to get better. We are making progress, but we aren’t quite there.
“I’m excited about the first game. This will be the test for them because of the speed of North Greenville. They are going to be running and will be quick. This will be the test to show us just how far along we are.”
ASU opened last season with a 37-34 win against Savannah State and are 10-1 at home the past two seasons.
Whitfield, who led the Rams in tackling last season, thinks his team is ready. And he’s ready to erase the 49-point loss that nobody in Albany has forgotten.
“The taste is still in our mouth, but it’s a taste that we can swallow and get past,” Whitfield said.