ASU players celebrate after beating Fort Valley in the Fountain City Classic last year in Columbus.
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WHO: Fort Valley (7-2, 5-1) vs. Albany State (6-3, 5-1).
WHAT: 23rd annual Fountain City Classic, East Division title on line.
WHEN: 2 p.m. today.
RADIO: 98.1 FM.
LIVE UPDATES: Log onto: twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports.
ALBANY — There’s always been bragging rights up for grabs when Albany State and Fort Valley State have clashed on the football field in the 68-year history of the rivalry.
Championships have also been won and lost in the annual Fountain City Classic. Legends have been born, and dreams have been shattered.
But the rivalry hasn’t seen anything yet.
Never has so much been on the line in the storied history of the matchup than what’s at stake today when the teams face off in the 23rd annual Fountain City Classic.
The winner will be crowned East Division champs, face either Miles or Tuskegee in next week’s conference championship game and keep its season and playoff hopes alive. And if ASU wins for the third year in a row, coach Mike White gets his 100th career victory.
“The game is very different because of what is on the line,” Rams linebacker and former Monroe star Larry Whitfield said. “What we want to achieve requires us getting farther than this game. Everything that we did in the season really doesn’t matter unless we beat Fort Valley.”
ASU (6-3) and Fort Valley (7-2) enter the game with identical 5-1 conference records and both are in need of a win to move up in the Super Region rankings and secure a spot in the Division II playoffs.
“More than anything, a win means we advance,” ASU safety Dexter Moody said. “A loss means we go home. Losing is not an option.”
Especially not to Fort Valley State.
It’s a message ASU players have been hearing for weeks around campus. Running back Nate Hoyte hasn’t forgotten an encounter he had with a pair of ASU alumni two weeks ago in an elevator in the student center before the Rams hosted Clark Atlanta for Homecoming.
“They weren’t really interested in the Homecoming game,” Hoyte said on Thursday. “They didn’t say anything about Clark. They just said, ‘Make sure you go out there and beat Fort Valley.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but we play Clark this week,’ but they just said, ‘Yeah, we know. But we only care about beating Fort Valley.’ ”
Beating Fort Valley is the only thing that matters right now for anybody connected to ASU.
“I saw a classmate from Columbus who I hadn’t seen since before last year’s Fort Valley State game,” White began, “and she came up to me and said, ‘Hey, Mike, you know we have to win this game (today)? It’s the most important game.’ I said, ‘That’s the same thing you told me last year.’ She said, ‘Yeah, but last year was nothing. This year is important.’ ”
It’s even more important for Hoyte and his fellow seniors, who gave themselves a chance to make a postseason run after bouncing back from a three-game losing streak and winning five in a row heading into today’s game.
They’ve salvaged the season.
Now they are trying to salvage what’s left of their careers.
“I’m trying not to put too much on it, but I am approaching it as a playoff game,” Hoyte said. “We gotta leave it all on the field, and that’s all you can do.”
Not many would have thought ASU would even be in a position to win the East Division after starting the season 1-3 and suffering one of the worst losses in the history of its program, a 41-6 setback to Miles on Sept. 22.
The Rams have come a long way from that demoralizing evening at Albany State Coliseum, where they watched Miles outplay them in every aspect of the game. That’s why a win today would mean even more than keeping a season alive.
“We can tag this as a pretty successful season winning this game,” White said. “The two teams playing don’t need a whole lot to get up for the game. Beating Fort Valley and having a 7-3 record would be a pretty good year.
“After we lost those three games, we recognized who we were and what we were going to be as a football team and try to use our strengths and not worry about the things we couldn’t control.”
White called Fort Valley the best team the Rams have faced since that loss to Miles, and he didn’t shy away from putting pressure on his defense to stop a Wildcats offense that averages an East Division best 28.6 points per game.
“The defense has to play extremely well,” said White, whose defense is giving up just 20 points per game and allowing 281 yards of total offense per game, which is 10th-best in the nation. “I do expect some hiccups offensively, but our defense has to hold them in check. If we let them get out, it’s going to be hard for us to come back against a team like that.”
ASU also can’t afford to let Fort Valley take Hoyte out of the Rams’ game plan. ASU’s senior running back has carried the offense this season, rushing for 879 yards and eight touchdowns.
“We need him,” White said. “We need him to run. We have to stay with that even if they score (early). It’s going to be hard for us not to stay with him.”
Hoyte has rushed for more than 90 yards five times this season — including last week when he exploded for 142 yards on a season-high 28 carries — and the Rams are 5-0 in those games. FVSU is in the bottom half of the conference in rushing yards allowed, giving up an average of 156 yards per game and opening the door for Hoyte to bust out for another 100-plus yard game.
“Every game where we have been able to run the ball effectively, we have been able to usually get the win,” Hoyte said. “I feel like a win and running the ball go hand in hand.”
White knows plenty about winning, especially in the Fountain City Classic, which he is 10-2 in since becoming head coach in 2000.
“As long as I have known about Albany State, I have known about the rivalry. It goes back a long way,” White said. “It’s like this every year. When you are talking about bragging rights, that’s the way it is. Last year is last year. This year is a whole new year.”