Fort Valley defensive end Christopher Spivey chases down Albany State backup quarterback Rodney Castlin, who came in for struggling starter David Kooi during the annual rivalry matchup at the Fountain City Classic in Columbus. The ASU offense sputtered in the 38-20, season-ending loss. (Kara Edgerson/Columbus Ledger-Enquirer).
COLUMBUS — Fort Valley State took it all away from the Albany State football team Saturday afternoon.
An East Division title and an appearance in the conference championship game.
A ninth straight trip to the Division II playoffs.
The 100th career victory for ASU coach Mike White.
It all vanished in front of more than 20,000 fans at A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium, where Fort Valley State won the 23rd annual Fountain City Classic, 38-20, to punch its ticket to the conference championship game next weekend and end the Rams’ season.
And it left White speechless.
“I did not see this coming,” said White, whose career record against FVSU — Albany State’s biggest rival — fell to 10-3. “This blindsided me. I don’t have a lot of words for what just happened. Guys who we usually count on who are pretty consistent ... it just wasn’t our game. Wasn’t our day.”
Saturday belonged to Fort Valley State quarterback Antonio Henton, the former Ohio State signee who torched the Rams (6-4, 5-2) for 236 yards and three touchdowns and completed 16 of 37 passes. Henton and the Wildcats (8-2,6-1) have now won five games in a row and advance to play West Division champion Tuskegee in Atlanta on Saturday.
“It feels great,” said Fort Valley coach Donald Pittman, whose Wildcats will be trying to win their first conference title since 1999. “ASU is a team that has been in some great games, and I can’t explain how good this feels. This builds our confidence, and it’s good for the program.”
Pittman, the ex-ASU assistant, said he didn’t talk to his former boss before or after the win about the stakes, but everybody knew what was on the line for White.
The long-time ASU head coach entered the game with a career record of 99-43 since taking over the Rams’ program in 2000.
Thousands of banners floated around the stadium with the words, “Go Coach White!!!” and “100th Win” printed in blue letters. The century mark will have to wait another season for the Augusta native.
“It would have been nice to give him that win, but coach White is going to get his win,” said ASU senior running back Nathan Hoyte, who finished the game with 38 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns. “He didn’t get it (Saturday), but I’m sure he will get it at the start of next year.”
The Rams had won five games in a row after opening the season 1-3 just to put themselves in position for a possible postseason run. A win Saturday would have advanced them to a second straight conference championship game, and a win next weekend would have likely sent them to the playoffs for the ninth year in a row.
But now the Rams are going home earlier than they have in almost a decade with their worst winning percentage (.600) since 2001.
“It’s so disappointing that we never really showed up. The offense, defense and special teams never really showed up. We got behind early, and we knew we really couldn’t do that,” White said. “I feel bad for the seniors. I just think it’s a tough way to go out, not playing as well as we did. We had some distractions this week, but I did not see this coming.”
Hoyte, who finished his final season with 917 yards and 10 touchdowns, was still coming to grips with the end of his college career as he walked off the field.
“Game over. I’m just going back to the locker room to change my clothes,” Hoyte said. “It’s going to sink in more as time goes on, but I was aware it would be my last game if we lost. So I was kind of prepared for whenever that loss came.”
It all started to unravel for the Rams early in Saturday’s contest. The Wildcats scored on four of their first five possessions, including two first-quarter touchdown passes from Henton to Eric McCree and Rashad Tukes.
Rams senior running back Richard Watson found the end zone at the beginning of the second quarter on a 2-yard rush, but Fort Valley blocked the extra point attempt, ran it back for a two-point conversion and then scored 21 unanswered points to put the game away.
All three Fort Valley touchdowns in the first half came on third-and-longs when Henton was able to buy time in the pocket and find an open receiver.
“That got us, the third-down conversions got us,” ASU senior defensive end Justin Blash said. “We don’t have an excuse. They just converted on us.”
The Rams trailed, 35-6, with nine minutes left in the game and were in danger of their worst loss to Fort Valley in the 68-year history of the rivalry, but two Hoyte rushing TDs in less than four minutes and an onside kick recover by Dexter Moody brought ASU to within two possessions with 5:48 remaining.
After forcing a Fort Valley three-and-out, ASU backup quarterback Rodney Castlin threw one of his three interceptions with 2:58 left in the game, ending any hope the Rams had of a miracle comeback.
Castlin played the end of the second quarter and the entire second half after starter David Kooi got benched for starting the game 2-for-10 with 43 yards and an interception. Castlin didn’t fare much better under center, completing 8 of 26 passes for 128 yards and turning the ball over four times.
“It’s tough,” Kooi said. “It’s tough to have your last outing be like that. We didn’t get it done, that’s what it comes down to.”
Kooi, the Division I transfer from FAU who finished the season with six TDs and six interceptions, said he was surprised to not see any snaps after halftime.
“I expected to go back in, but it was (offensive coordinator Uyl Joyner’s) decision and I didn’t,” Kooi said. “At that point you just have to pump your team up and try to get everyone else into it. Everything is way beyond me. It’s not just about me. It’s about the team. It was coach’s decision to take me out, and I just had to respect it and try to get everybody else ready. And make sure (Castlin) sees some stuff and help him make reads that maybe he didn’t see.”
Fort Valley star receiver Christopher Slaughter had his moments and caught five passes for a game-high 115 yards, but the senior with NFL talent was held out of the end zone for just the fourth time this season.
Moody, who plays strong safety, got beat once on a deep pass, but most of the time Slaughter and his fellow receivers did their damage against the Rams’ linebackers
“Nobody underestimated these guys,” Moody said. “We came out, and we knew it was going to be a battle from the first whistle to the end of the game. But (FVSU) came out with more fight and more will to win.”
White said an ASU win would have vindicated a season that looked bleak after three straight losses in September.
“I thought with a win today we could have called this a pretty successful season to get back to the conference championship game,” White said. “But right now, finishing the way we did, this season doesn’t leave a good taste in my mouth.”