Albany State defenders, from left, Larry Whitfield, Erik Staley and Glen Stanley celebrate after a second-half stop against Benedict on Saturday. The Rams held the Tigers to 75 yards in the second half and kept them out of the end zone all day in the 31-6 victory. (Staff photo: John Millikan)
ALBANY — The only bad thing about Saturday’s fourth quarter for the Albany State football team was that it had to end.
In maybe the most exciting quarter Albany State has played this season, the Rams outscored Benedict 31-0 in the final 17 minutes of the SIAC showdown to pull away for a 31-6 victory, setting up a de facto East Division championship game next week against bitter rival Fort Valley State.
The thrilling end to Saturday’s game was full of touchdowns, highlight-reel plays and dominating defensive stands.
And even a little bit of smiling and dancing.
“When you win it feels good,” said Camilla native Jessie Atkins, who caught two TDs in a span of three minutes to ignite ASU’s late comeback.
ASU is back to .500 after a 1-4 start and stayed unbeaten in the East Division, and with a win next week against FVSU the Rams (4-4, 3-0) will remarkably be able to play for an SIAC championship in Atlanta on Nov. 16.
The Rams have found a way to turn their season around, and on Saturday they dug deep into the sod at the Albany State Coliseum and turned a must-win game around.
ASU went into the locker room at halftime flat and unable to move the ball on offense, but they emerged in the second half with intensity after pep talks from head coach Mike White, offensive coordinator Steve Smith and assistant coach William Chunn.
“Coach Chunn put the icing on the cake with his speech,” Atkins said. “After he said what he had to say, it really got everybody fired up and we went from there.
“(The speech) was about it being win or go home. That’s all it took. Because nobody wants to go home right now.”
In their home finale, the Rams went nowhere on offense in the first half and went into halftime with just 110 total yards and no points. In the first 30 minutes, QB Frank Rivers was 1-for-6 on third-down conversions, was stuffed on a key 4th-and-1 sneak and couldn’t get into any kind of groove with his receivers.
But then the Rams shifted to a no-huddle offense in the second half, and the Tigers (4-5, 2-2) couldn’t catch up. Rivers caught fire and finished with 236 yards and three TDs on 19-of-28, upping his total in the last six games to 16 TDs and two interceptions.
“(The no-huddle) kept them off balance, and they couldn’t substitute as much as they wanted to,” Rivers said. “We got the D-line gassed a little bit, and it helped us a lot.”
His favorite target during the second-half surge was Atkins, who caught all four of his passes after halftime and finished with a game-high 81 yards. Atkins also upped his team-high TD total to seven for the season.
“Up-tempo really keeps us on track,” said Atkins, who sat out much of the fourth quarter with a bruised left knee but believes he will be healthy next week. “We always work on our two-minute drill at practice, so in a game when it’s time to do that, it’s just second nature.”
While the Rams’ catch-up-with-us-if-you-can offense was on fire in the second half, it couldn’t find any rhythm early. Benedict place kicker Eduardo Hernandez banged in a field goal in each of the first two quarters to give the Tigers a 6-0 lead at halftime, and ASU’s first two drives of the second half also stalled to keep the Rams off the scoreboard until the closing minutes of the third quarter.
With Rivers hurrying his team to the line of scrimmage after every play, the Rams marched to the edge of the red zone, and then theGrambling State transfer quarterback fired a 24-yard TD pass to Atkins with 1:58 left in the third quarter to give ASU a 7-6 lead.
“We got that first touchdown, and it kind of let us know that we can do this,” Rivers said. “It was a long time waiting to get those first points on the board, and when we finally did it just started clicking.”
Rivers threw an 18-yard TD pass to Atkins 11 seconds into the fourth quarter, and the rout was on. ASU’s Zachary Holley kicked a 20-yard field goal with 7:46 left on the clock, former Mitchell County star Jaquan Williams scored on an 18-yard pass from Rivers with six minutes left and then with 3:24 remaining former Westover star and freshman DB Kelderion Miller picked off Benedict QB Brandon Thompson and ran it back 48 yards for his first career TD.
“I thought our defense played really well in the second half, and that was one of those plays,” White said about Miller’s pick-six.
Miller said getting an interception had been on his mind all day.
“My boy Glen (Stanley) had been telling me the whole game that I was going to catch a pick,” Miller said. “He promised me before we even got off the bus that I would catch an interception.”
Stanley, one of the defensive heroes in last week’s rout of Clark Atlanta, had a standout game Saturday as well. The senior from Ocala, Fla., had three tackles for losses and also a sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery on the same play.
Both turnovers were part of a second half when the ASU defense allowed just 75 yards and five first downs.
“We just started to play better,” White said. “I really don’t have any idea why. We went into half and talked about how we weren’t playing like we should. We came out and got a couple of stops and finally got it clicking.”
The focus, however, immediately shifted to the Fort Valley State Wildcats, who ASU will meet in Columbus for the annual Fountain City Classic.
For the second straight year, the winner of the game will clinch the East Division title and punch its ticket to the SIAC championship game. Last season, FVSU denied Albany State a trip to Atlanta with a 38-20 victory.
“Fort Valley, it’s going to be a knock-down, drag-out fight,” White said. “That’s the way it always is.”