Albany State quarterback Frank Rivers has thrown 13 TDs and two interceptions in his last five games and has the Rams one win away from an SIAC title appearance. (Staff photo: John Millikan)
COLUMBUS — Three weeks ago, Albany State and Fort Valley State were just trying to find ways to survive.
The traditional SIAC East Division powerhouses were each three games under .500 and reeling from two of the worst starts in years for the storied programs.
Neither stayed down for long.
The archrivals both ran the table on their East Division foes and have won a combined five straight games entering today’s Fountain City Classic, setting up a showdown that will determine who plays for an SIAC title next Saturday and who sees its season come to an end.
“If you would have told me that we had only won four games going into this game, I never would have thought we would have had a chance (at an SIAC championship),” ASU coach Mike White said. “But we are here, and playing better football and right where we want to be.”
The teams find themselves in the identical position they were in last season when Fort Valley beat ASU, 38-20, to win the East Division title — but the Wildcats haven’t beaten the Rams in back-to-back years since 1983-84.
And ASU safety Dexter Moody isn’t ready to see that trend end.
“I look at this as being one of the hardest games we will have to play all season,” Moody said. “This is our biggest rival, and they are going to come at us with everything they have and more. That’s going to be the same with us.”
Albany State (4-4, 3-0) was in shock midway through the season with a 1-4 record and each of the four losses coming by eight or fewer points, but the Rams bounced back with three straight convincing wins, outscoring Clark Atlanta, Benedict and Morehouse by a combined 103-33.
It was a three-game winning streak fueled by heart — one that has the Rams believing in themselves and their coaches more than ever before.
“We never gave up,” ASU quarterback Frank Rivers said. “Everybody kept fighting and kept their heads in it. We took it one game at a time, one play at a time, one moment at a time.”
Moment-by-moment, Rivers and the Rams found a way to turn their season around. And it was Rivers, a junior transfer from Grambling State, who has made the biggest difference down the stretch.
After starting the season with just three TDs and three interceptions in his first three games, Rivers has thrown for 13 TDs and two interceptions in his last five games and has emerged as the second-most efficient QB in the conference behind Lane’s Chris Rini.
On Thursday, Rivers gave all the credit to his teammates.
“A lot of that goes to the offensive line,” he said. “They have been doing a good job picking up blitzes and have been doing a good job of staying in there and fighting for me and protecting me.”
The ASU defense has been fighting, too.
The Rams have allowed just three touchdowns over the past three games and have racked up 18 sacks during that stretch after having just one sack in the first five games of the season. And when White thinks back to ASU’s victories against Fort Valley over the past decade, he says it’s the Rams’ defense that has made the difference.
“We can’t allow them to do what they have been doing to teams,” White said about a Fort Valley offense that has scored 98 points in its last two games. “Our defense and special teams have been the difference (in previous years). It’s our defense that has got to raise up (today) and make the difference.”
White is 10-3 against Fort Valley since taking over the ASU program in 2000 and says the atmosphere between the teams is “one of a kind.”
“There is nothing like it,” he said. “Homecoming doesn’t match it. I can remember a few big plays at homecoming over the years that give you that roar that you hear (in Columbus). But it’s like having two home crowds. They are very loud, we are very loud. The momentum swings are big in this game because of that.”
Rivers hasn’t played — or even attended — a Fountain City Classic, but he has heard all about the rivalry this week.
“This is the only game that matters,” he said. “You can go undefeated and then lose to Fort Valley, and then the rest of the season doesn’t matter.”
But as much as this means to ASU, the Wildcats (4-5, 3-0) are equally desperate for a win to avoid finishing below .500 for just the third time in the last 16 years.
After starting the season with a 2-5 record, Fort Valley has won two straight with blowout victories against Concordia and Morehouse. The Wildcats had been led by senior quarterback Eugene Smith the first seven weeks of the season, but a knee injury knocked Smith out of the starting lineup the past two weeks, opening the door for backup Malcolm Eady, who will likely get the start today despite Smith being healthy enough to play.
The past two weeks Eady, a freshman from Swainsboro, has thrown for five TDs and rushed for three more and has led the Wildcat offense to its two highest-scoring games in two years.
“We knew those guys on offense could play and the only surprise is that it took this long to really get going,” said head coach Donald Pittman, who was an assistant at Albany State for seven years. “Eady has provided a big boost for us with his athleticism and he has made everyone else on offense a little better. We just want to continue to build on what we have done in the last few weeks.”