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PREVIEW: Red-hot Rams won’t overlook 1-7 Tigers in Augusta City Classic

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

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WHO: Benedict (1-4, 1-7) vs. Albany State (5-3, 4-1).

WHAT: Augusta City Classic, East Division showdown.

WHEN: 2 p.m. today.

WHERE: Augusta.

RADIO: 98.1 FM.

LIVE UPDATES: Log onto: twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports.

ALBANY — The Albany State football team is seven days away from the biggest game of the year.

Seven days from the Nov. 3 showdown with rival Fort Valley State that will likely decide who represents the East Division in the conference championship.

Seven days from a game that will define a season.

Just don’t tell that to the Rams, who insist they are focusing on today’s matchup against last-place Benedict and not looking ahead to next week’s Fountain City Classic.

“We just have to pay attention to what we are doing,” ASU coach Mike White said. “We aren’t that good of a team to where we can look forward and walk up there and just handle this team. (Benedict) should be feeling pretty good after winning their first game, and they are probably thinking that we are looking ahead.”

ASU (5-3, 4-1 in the conference) and Benedict (1-7, 1-4) face off in the Augusta City Classic, the Rams’ fourth classic game this season.

White is an Augusta native and is returning home for the first time as either a player or a coach, but he isn’t letting his homecoming become a distraction either.

“I am always on my players about focusing on what we need to do, and I know I am fixing to get a lot of people trying to distract me from what I am doing,” White said. “But I am pretty confident I will pass that test. I will be all right.”

White, 55, played at Westside High School in Augusta but hasn’t been on a football field in his hometown since graduating in 1975.

“There will be a bunch of people there that I haven’t seen in a while,” White said. “Friends of mine, classmates that I haven’t seen in a while. It will be very different from any other weekend for me.”

He does hope one thing remains the same: winning.

The Rams have won four games in a row and have turned around a season that looked bleak after Miles routed ASU, 41-6, in the first conference game. Since then, ASU has found an identity on defense (allowing just 12.5 points per game) and some stability on offense.

And a pair of victories in the final two games of the season would not only give White career wins Nos. 99 and 100, it would guarantee ASU a second straight trip to the conference championship game.

“That feels good because our goals are still in reach, so basically we just have to continue to progress and win out,” said ASU running back Nathan Hoyte, who has powered the offense with 737 yards and eight touchdowns.

A loss to Benedict today would virtually eliminate ASU from a shot at the conference title — the Rams could only get in if Fort Valley (6-2, 4-1) lost its last two games. It would also drop the Rams further down the Super Region rankings and put a ninth consecutive playoff appearance in serious jeopardy.

In short, a loss to Benedict would be a dagger in the season.

“Even though they have won just one game, every team wants to give Albany State their best,” safety Dexter Moody, who leads the nation with seven interceptions, said of Benedict. “We can’t look at them as the underdog. We can’t look at it as an automatic win. We have to go out there and play just like we would if they were undefeated.”

Benedict would have been winless if not for an inspiring 36-29 win last week during Homecoming against Morehouse, a team that Albany State beat by just three points two weeks ago.

“Since Benedict won last week and beat Morehouse, and the game between Morehouse and us came down to the end, I think that lets you know right there that you have to take (today) seriously,” Hoyte said. “Morehouse was a good opponent against us, and if Benedict beat them then who knows what could be going on over there? Maybe they turned it around.”

Benedict forced three fumbles, had two interceptions and didn’t turn the ball over once against Morehouse, while Benedict QB Marcus Graham threw for 151 yards and a TD and ran for another 37 yards.

Moody said Graham is Benedict’s biggest weapon.

“He does a really good job of buying time and finding open guys,” Moody said. “We have been practicing sticking with those guys when the quarterback scrambles out of the pocket and knowing how to contain a receiver.”

White is also hoping Mother Nature is on their side today.

“We are really hoping — now I’m not sure of the name of this hurricane — but we are hoping that wind picks up,” White joked, referring to Hurricane Sandy, which isn’t forecast to make landfall until early next week on the East Coast but could bring considerable moisture and wind to the Augusta area today around game time. “We are hoping that wind gets really strong over there and makes it hard for them to throw.”

ASU’s defense, which is ranked 18th in the nation in points allowed, could shut down Benedict’s offense either way.

“We are just playing better football,” White said. “We have been able to take care of the ball better and have been able to create a few turnovers ourselves. We have been playing a little bit better and a little bit better each week, so we have to stay with that same equation.”