Albany State star running back Nathan Hoyte (1) leaves North Greenville’s A.J. Jones in the dust Saturday during the Rams’ season opener and a rematch of last year’s first round of the D-II playoffs. Greenville routed ASU then, and the Rams repaid the favor Saturday, 24-12.
ALBANY — The Albany State Rams wanted revenge, and their defense wanted redemption.
They opened the season with both.
No. 22 Albany State avenged last season’s 63-14 Division II playoff loss to North Greenville (S.C.) with a 24-12 victory against the 23rd-ranked Crusaders in Saturday’s season opener for both teams.
“It almost feels like this is what was supposed to happen (last season),” ASU running back Nathan Hoyte said. “After that loss, we started working from January. From January, we had this game on our minds. To go out here and execute and come away with the win, we couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Albany State’s “Dirty Blue” defense, which finished last season near the bottom of the conference in nearly every major category, looked unbreakable Saturday, allowing just 177 yards and forcing two turnovers, including an 81-yard kickoff return for a touchdown from safety Dexter Moody.
Hoyte got in on the party, too.
The senior running back rushed for a career-high 179 yards and ran for scores of 47 and 34 yards to lead the Rams’ offense, which gained 246 total yards.
“I thought he made some exceptional runs, but it’s no different than what we have been seeing in practice,” ASU coach Mike White said. “He is a kid who worked hard this offseason, and I expect to see more this season.”
Hoyte averaged 9.9 yards per carry but said it was a night that was made possible by his offensive line.
“It came down to them springing me,” Hoyte said. “When I went for those long runs — and you can look at the film — it was key blocks being made that helped me do what I did (Saturday).”
The Rams never trailed in the game, thanks to a defense that allowed just 13 first downs, sacked North Greenville QB Nelson Hughes five times and stopped the Crusaders’ running backs and receivers in the backfield 11 times.
White preached all preseason about the necessity of his defense to return to its old form of shutting down opposing offenses.
They were tough as nails Saturday.
“They played good,” White said. “They played better than I had expected them. I didn’t know how we would fair against them, but we prepared all week. And it paid big dividends (Saturday).”
Linebacker Marcavius Dudley led the Rams on defense with a game-high 12 tackles and four tackles for loss, while linebacker Larry Whitfield, a former Monroe star, had seven tackles and an interception.
The Rams’ coaching staff also got a first look at Florida Atlantic transfer QB David Kooi, who recently beat out Gardner-Webb transfer Keenan Grissett for the starting job. Kooi finished 11-of-21 for 125 yards and an interception, while Grissett saw occasional playing time and finished 0-for-1.
“(Both QBs playing) worked well,” Kooi said. “I think we are just going to work on it more. We had some mistakes, so we are going to have to finalize that and come back stronger next week.”
A defining victory in front of a packed crowd at Albany State Coliseum — it was a heck of a way for Kooi to be baptized into Ram football.
“All the boys were ready before the game,” Kooi said. “They were all in the (locker room) hyped and ready to go, so they pretty much took me under and won the game.”
The Rams held North Greenville starting RB Darius Paulk to 29 yards rushing and the entire Crusaders team to a combined 75 yards on the ground.
Hughes was 15-for-25 for 104 yards, completing six of his passes to Troy Jones, who finished with 23 yards receiving.
ASU was led in receiving by former Mitchell County star Jessie Atkins, who caught three passes for 54 yards. Julian Bellinger caught four passes for 29 yards, and Ronnie Tubbs hauled in three passes for 32 yards.
Hoyte’s 47-yard TD got ASU on the board with 8:33 remaining in the first quarter, and the Rams were poised to get in the end zone again at the beginning of the first quarter. However, Kooi threw behind a receiver in the front corner of the end zone, and North Greenville’s Taylor Anderson picked off the pass and ran it back to midfield, setting up a 37-yard field goal from Justin Gravely.
Albany State place kicker Zachary Holley gave the Rams a seven-point advantage again with a 26-yard field goal as time expired in the first half.
Hoyte opened up the second half with a pair of long runs, including a 34-yard rush up the middle of the defense for his second touchdown with 11:49 on the clock in the third quarter.
The Crusaders responded with a safety on a botched snap by Albany State backup center Taylor Benchoff with 4:01 in the third quarter, but Moody’s interception return for a TD at the beginning of the fourth quarter swung the momentum back in the Rams’ favor.
“The run back was pretty tiring,” Moody said. “I kind of thought I was going to be caught at one point in time, but I looked back, and once I got to the 20, I saw the end zone.”
The return gave the Rams a 24-5 lead, their largest of the game. North Greenville offensive lineman Jacob Morris recovered a fumble in the end zone for the Crusaders’ only touchdown with 6:37 left in the game, but a Whitefield interception with two minutes left sealed the victory for ASU.
“We knew what they did to us last year, and to come out and play them as the first team on our schedule after they blew us out and get the win gives us a lot of confidence going into our next games,” Hoyte said.
The Rams are on the road their next two games against a pair of Division II powerhouses — Saturday at Wingate (N.C.) and Sept. 15 against Elizabeth City State (N.C.).
NOTES: Albany State senior linebacker Jarvis Brice left the game in the first quarter after breaking two bones in his left leg. The game was delayed for nearly 10 minutes while paramedics and trainers put Brice’s leg in a brace. He was eventually carted off the field. … ASU center Hakeem Lassiter, one of the team’s captains, also left the game in the first half with a cut on his ear.