Members of the Albany State band stand up and dance in celebration after a score during last year’s Homecoming game against Benedict. The band, along with thousands of fans and alumni from across the country, will converge on the Good Life City once again for Homecoming today as the Rams take on Clark Atlanta. (Herald file photo)
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WHO: Clark Atlanta (2-5, 2-3) at Albany State (4-3, 3-1).
WHEN: 2 p.m. today.
RADIO: 98.1 FM.
LIVE UPDATES: Log onto: twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports.
ALBANY — Welcome home.
The Golden Rams are back at home, back over .500 and right back in the middle of the conference’s East Division title race.
Three straight wins — all of which were on the road — have redefined Albany State’s season and given them renewed hope heading into today’s Homecoming game against Clark Atlanta.
“I think with the winning and with us still in the race for the East Division, I think all of that is a positive for us,” ASU coach Mike White said. “I’m not sure the effect it would have on us if we didn’t have that in front of us. I think that helps us stay focused.”
A win today puts ASU (4-3, 3-1) a step closer to that East Division title, which the Rams captured last season by winning their last four regular-season games.
That late-season winning streak included a victory against Fort Valley State in the Fountain City Classic, which clinched ASU’s appearance in the inaugural conference title game. The Rams want to get back to that title game for another shot at Miles, and the Nov. 3 game against Fort Valley State will likely decide the East Division champion.
That’s the long-term goal. Today, it’s all about keeping the momentum going with a solid performance against Clark Atlanta.
“It’s Homecoming. We are off that three-game skid and on a three-game winning streak,” offensive lineman Victor Moli said. “It’s a great week to be a Ram, but we need to be able to put all of that to the side and get into game mode (today).”
The Rams are 34-6 in their 40-year history against Clark Atlanta and have won nine in a row against the Panthers, including last year’s 19-13 victory in Waycross.
Clark Atlanta beat conference foe Benedict last week, but prior to that the Panthers had lost 12 of their last 13 games. The Panthers haven’t had a winning season since 2008 and are unlikely to have one this season, but Moli said he and his teammates aren’t overlooking today’s game.
“Clark Atlanta isn’t a terrible team, so we just have to be ready to go out there, execute and play football,” Moli said.
The Panthers might not be terrible, but they definitely aren’t cracking into any Top 10 polls.
They are the second-worst Division II team in the nation in scoring (11 points per game) and total offense (201.6 yards per game). Their leading rusher, Antonio Ford, averages just 31.6 yards per game, and starting QB Charles King has thrown more interceptions (5) than touchdowns (4).
ASU hasn’t given up more than 14 points during its three-game winning streak, and starting linebacker Marcavius Dudley said the defense is slowly coming to grips with White’s game plan.
“We are playing how we are coached,” said Dudley, who has 56 tackles this season. “To keep it going we have to remember what we did good last week and get better on the things we didn’t do well. For example we were playing tired, and we can’t do that (today).”
After scoring fewer than 10 points twice in the first month of the season, ASU’s offense has started to come alive, and White said today’s matchup gives the Rams an opportunity to take another step forward.
“Offensively I think we are trying to be smarter about what we are trying to do,” White said. “We aren’t going to hit home runs. If we get close to a short fence, we might take a swing at it, but there’s no need to try to swing for the fences right now. We just have to get on base, get field advantage and do it that way.”
The Rams have been led on offense this season by running back Nathan Hoyte, who is coming off his third 100-plus yard game of the season and has had at least one rushing TD in every game during ASU’s winning streak.
Hoyte has been the team’s steady leader, but quarterback David Kooi has bounced back from a rocky start to the season and is interception-free his last three games with four TDs and 492 yards of total offense.
It’s all coming together at the right time for the Rams, who are three games removed from their worst losing streak in a decade and ready to bring a Homecoming victory to campus.
White knows how important it is for the ASU community.
“(The players) recognize it when they go to class. They see people around with blue and gold on all week. It’s an important time,” White said. “Everybody wants to win and have fun on their Homecoming. That’s why everybody comes back. The guys understand. I hear them talking about it, so that’s why I believe they understand.”