Miles College football players spill onto the field in celebration as a lone ASU player lays with his head face down in the turf after losing to the Golden Bears, 20-17, last November in the inaugural conference Championship game in Atlanta. ASU, the heavy favorite, may have been upset in the game, but the Rams get a chance at payback tonight in Albany.
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WHO: Miles (2-1) at ASU (1-2).
WHAT: Conference openers.
WHEN: 7 p.m. today.
WHERE: ASU Coliseum.
RADIO: 98.1 FM.
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ALBANY — They darted onto the field, hands raised high and emotions even higher.
Miles stunned Albany State, 20-17, in last season’s conference championship game, and seconds after the buzzer sounded, the team, coaches and a handful of fans rushed the field in celebration, running around Albany State players laying on the ground with their heads buried in disbelief.
It’s been 10 months since the game — since the wobbly, 29-yard field goal with nine seconds left that brought down the mighty Rams — and Albany State running back Nathan Hoyte hasn’t forgotten a single detail.
“I remember it was a feeling that I didn’t like. It doesn’t get any more complex than that,” Hoyte said. “We saw them celebrate and leave with the rings that we felt that we could have and should have won.”
Now the Rams, mired in a two-game losing streak and in the midst of their worst start to a season in years, have payback on their minds.
Albany State (1-2) hosts Miles (2-1) today in the conference opener for both teams, and after back-to-back losses to Wingate (N.C.) and Elizabeth City State (N.C.), the Rams are looking for a victory to turn their season around.
And there might not be a better team to get that against than the team that broke their hearts and then stole their rings.
“They celebrated pretty good. This is a revenge game,” Albany State senior defensive lineman Justin Blash said. “Some of (my) teammates aren’t believing right now, so when we get the win there is going to be a lot of believing going on.”
The Rams are 1-for-1 in revenge games this season after avenging last year’s blowout loss to North Greenville in the opening round of the 2011 Division II playoffs. But since that season-opening, 24-12 victory against the Crusaders, the Rams have fallen on hard times and struggled through a pair of lengthy road trips. For just the second time in the last decade, ASU has a losing record, and junior strong safety Dexter Moody, who leads the team with two interceptions, knows how important it is to not fall any further below .500.
“Everybody on the team knows how much we need this game,” Moody said. “We are coming out and giving extra at practice and watching as much film as we can to be prepared for (today).”
The Rams, however, are preparing for what might be their toughest conference game of the season. Miles returns 20 starters and is on a two-game winning streak with victories against Shaw (28-15) and West Georgia (44-37). Miles is the top team in the conference in scoring, averaging 34 points per game, and is No. 1 in passing at 299 yards per game.
No one has been able to stop Miles QB David Thomas, who is first in the conference in passing yards (818), completion percentage (66.7) and passing efficiency (163.4). And he can run as well, racking up 113 yards and a pair of TDs on the ground this season.
Throw in preseason all-conference running back Jordan Lewis and the conference’s top-ranked defense in 2011, and it’s clear the Golden Bears are favorites to repeat as conference champs.
ASU coach Mike White thinks they are favorites in today’s game, too.
“I’m almost certain this is the first time Miles would be the favorite,” said White, who’s in his 13th season. “They look good on film and put up a lot of numbers. We are going to have to put an excellent game together to slow them down.
“They are a good team. Period. They really don’t have weaknesses. They throw the ball well. They can throw it vertical. They have fast backs and can run inside and outside. … And they have all of their defenders back, so they are a good team.”
While Miles has had no problem putting up points against a trio of tough non-conference opponents, Albany State is still looking to find some rhythm on offense. Quarterback David Kooi is still settling in after transferring to ASU from Florida Atlantic late in the preseason, and a lack of cohesiveness with his receivers shows. He’s completed just 47 percent of his passes and has 572 yards, four interceptions and two TDs. Ronnie Tubbs, the Rams’ top returning receiver who was a preseason HBCU All-American, has been nearly shut out in the first three games, catching just six passes for 56 yards.
Tubbs, Kooi and the rest of the offense, which is averaging only 15 points per game, think they are close to turning in around.
“The receivers need to play better,” Tubbs said. “Everybody needs to have a better game and set the tone. We’re close.”
Before the conference championship, the Rams had defeated Miles nine times in a row, including a 34-27 win in the regular season last year. In the 65-year history of the matchup, ASU is 33-12-3, and White is 10-3 against the Golden Bears.
White is used to winning and so are his upperclassmen.
“I’m used to it. I’m staying after practice to work with the offensive linemen. I’m used to winning,” Blash said.
Now it’s all about getting that winning feeling back.
“Some of the new guys probably don’t feel (the urgency to win) like some of the older guys who have been around,” White said. “We talk about this being a new season going into the conference race now. It’s all about trying to get this win.”