PREVIEW: Albany State hosts Benedict for final home game

The Albany State Rams need a win to stay in the driver’s seat for an East Division title

Albany State linebacker Marcavius Dudley has been a key senior leader for the Rams, who have turned around their season and can get back to .500 with a win today against Benedict. (Reginald Christian/Albany State University)

Albany State linebacker Marcavius Dudley has been a key senior leader for the Rams, who have turned around their season and can get back to .500 with a win today against Benedict. (Reginald Christian/Albany State University)

ALBANY — Frank Rivers is getting used to must-win games.

It’s a mindset that has defined the second half of Albany State’s football season and one the Golden Rams are taking into today’s SIAC game against Benedict College.

After a stunning 1-4 start to the season that knocked them out of the Division II playoff picture before the first Regional rankings were even released, the Rams can return to .500 today and keep themselves in the driver’s seat for a spot in the conference championship game.

It’s been one pressure-packed game after another in the latter half of the season, but it’s a load Rivers and the Rams have been able to thrive under.

“It’s tough, but you have to stay focused and take it one game at a time,” said Rivers, ASU’s junior quarterback. “You can’t look ahead, and you just have to think about tomorrow.

“It’s pretty much been like that all season, because we always get everyone’s best game. You have to play at a high level week-in and week-out.”

ASU (3-4, 2-0 SIAC East) figured it would have to run the table in its final four regular-season games to appear in the SIAC championship, and the Golden Rams are halfway there heading into today’s final home game against a Benedict team that also has hopes of a conference title appearance.

The Tigers (4-4, 2-1) and Rams are both on two-game winning streaks with similar victories against Clark Atlanta and Morehouse and are in a three-way race for the East Division title with Fort Valley State, ASU’s opponent next Saturday.

“Benedict is a talented team with a talented defense. They get after the quarterback and are playing solid defense,” Rivers said. “It’s going to be a tough one. They are coming in here to kick our butt, but we have to protect our house.”

The Rams are 2-1 at home this season and, other than a last-minute loss to Tuskegee nearly two months ago, have looked unbeatable in the Coliseum. If the Rams’ defense plays like it did last week when it allowed 54 total yards in a dominating performance against Clark Atlanta, ASU will probably look unbeatable again today.

It’s been a turnaround for the ages this season at ASU, where the Rams lost four of their first five games by one-possession. But behind leaders like safety Dexter Moody, linebacker Marcavius Dudley and offensive lineman Victor Moli, the Rams never stopped fighting.

And remarkably, they’ve fought themselves back to the top of the SIAC East standings.

“They have been the difference,” ASU coach Mike White said about the team’s leaders. “It’s the leadership of your team and the character of your team that determines when you are in tight spots and how you come out of that.”

And nobody has been more instrumental in keeping the Rams united than Dudley, a senior from Brunswick who is second on the team with 42 tackles.

“Dudley is going to be like that forever,” White said about his defensive leader’s character. “I will see him 20 years from now, and his kids will be like that. That’s just him. He’s just going to fight you all the way, and it’s great to have a guy like that on your side.”

Dudley and the ASU defense is riding into today’s game on the coattails of their best outing of the season, but they will face a Benedict passing attack that could give the Rams trouble. ASU has struggled with rushing the passer this season against teams that like to throw the ball, and the Benedict QBs air it out more than anybody in the East Division. QBs Brandon Thompson, Marcus Graham and Lorenza Cooper have all started games under center for the Tigers, but it’s the Benedict receivers who have proved to be a challenge for defenders.

Harlon Samuels (585 yardsm 3 TDs), Maurice Griffin (443 yards, 2 TDs) and Kendariss Brown (223 yards, 2 TDs) all have more than 20 receptions and have given opposing defenses matchup problems all year.

Dudley insists the Rams are ready.

“We have to be bigger than big,” he said. “We have to show up as a defense.”

The Rams have shown that they can keep pace with anybody on offense and have scored 30 or more points in four of their last five games.

And you need to look no further than Rivers for the catalyst of the offensive surge. The transfer from Grambling State has looked like a Division I QB the last month and a half with 13 total TDs and only two interceptions and a completion percentage well over 60 percent in the past five games.

“I’m just trying to stay calm and play my game instead of trying to do more than what I need to do. I have to stay inside the scheme,” said Rivers, who added that he was trying to do too much as a QB earlier in the season. “The offense is now clicking and understanding the concept of where we need to go.”

His favorite target continues to be Camilla native Jessie Atkins — who has five TDs and 484 yards — but Rivers isn’t afraid to mix it up and has thrown TDs to seven different players this season and has completed passes to at last seven different receivers in the last three games.

It will be the final chance for ASU’s seniors to play in front of a home crowd, and Cuthbert native and Ram DB Jeremy Reynolds says his fellow seniors will have to fight through the emotion and keep their intensity up despite a farewell ceremony before opening kickoff.

“You just have to remain focused no matter what,” Reynolds said. “You are going to enjoy it with your family out there, but the main thing is for everyone to keep their focus and their minds on the task at hand.”