Albany State quarterback Frank Rivers stiff arms Fort Valley State’s Ja'Bioas Glenn in Saturday's Fountain City Classic in Columbus, which the Rams won to clinch a spot in next Saturday's SIAC championship game in Atlanta. (Staff photo: John Millikan)
COLUMBUS — Adrian Alexander had one word to describe his 64-yard touchdown catch with 1:41 left in Saturday’s Fountain City Classic.
“Amazing,” he said. “That was amazing.”
Albany State’s junior running back has a knack for the amazing when he steps into A.J. McClung Stadium.
Alexander, who led ASU to an FCC win two years ago with a breakout performance against Fort Valley State, took center stage again on Saturday, leading the Rams to a 19-10 victory against the Wildcats to clinch an SIAC East Division championship.
The win, ASU’s fourth in a row, sends the Rams into the conference championship game next Saturday in Atlanta against Miles, which defeated Tuskegee on Saturday for the West Division title.
Alexander finished with 128 all-purpose yards and two TDs, including the victory-clinching score on a screen pass from Frank Rivers in the final moments that sealed ASU’s come-from-behind victory.
“I noticed it last game that the crowd gets excited when (Alexander) touches the ball, but he is that kind of player,” ASU coach Mike White said. “What an exciting play, and what a play to close the door on the game.”
It closed the door on Fort Valley State’s season and lifted the Rams to an improbable trip to Atlanta that seemed unlikely a month ago when ASU was 1-4 and reeling from its worst start in more than a decade.
But the Rams never gave up and instead produced one of the greatest turnaround stories in ASU history —- a story that could have the perfect ending next Saturday against Miles, which defeated ASU in the SIAC championship game two seasons ago.
“I can’t say how happy and how proud I am of these guys,” White said. “I am looking them in the eyes, and they are looking me in the eyes at halftime. And they believed they could come back and do it. They believed that.”
ASU (5-4, 4-0) went into halftime trailing 10-0 with just 45 total yards, but the game started to turn for the Rams two minutes into the second half when defensive lineman and former Mitchell County star Grover Stewart recovered a fumble. Four plays later, Rivers converted a fourth-down pass to Camilla’s Jessie Atkins, and then on the very next play Alexander scored from 14 yards out to put the Rams on the board.
Just like in last week’s come-from-behind win against Benedict, the Rams got a shut-down defensive performance in the second half again on Saturday, and Marcavius Dudley led the way for the Dirty Blue.
Dudley was named the MVP of the game (to be fair to Alexander, the MVP votes were tallied before his final TD) and finished with 16 tackles, three tackles for loss and a forced fumble.
The senior linebacker walked off the field clutching the MVP trophy with a look of relief that his career was extended at least another week.
“This trophy is just a trophy of hard work, and I have been working hard all year,” Dudley said. “I said that I was going to come out (Saturday) and play my hardest and play my heart out. I will go put this trophy in the room, and now it’s time to go to work for next week.”
The win sets up a game against a Miles team that beat ASU 22-14 back on Sept. 28, but the Rams are 4-1 since then and have outscored their last five opponents a combined 159-80.
“We had a lot of mistakes in that (Sept. 28) loss by not doing what we were coached to do,” Dudley said. “So we are going to do as we are coached (next Saturday) and take care of business.”
Each of Albany State’s losses were by eight or fewer points this season, but White said it was Miles that gave ASU the most trouble.
“Miles is probably the one team that we felt really beat us this year,” White said. “We are going to have our work cut out, but we are happy to be here and to have the chance to play them.”
Early on, it looked like Fort Valley would head to its second straight SIAC title game. The Wildcats, who finish the season 4-6 overall and 3-1 in the East Division, scored first in the closing seconds of the first quarter on a Donte Warren 22-yard pass from Malcolm Eady, who found his receiver wide open in the secondary for an easy touchdown.
FVSU tacked on a field goal with eight minutes left in the second quarter to take a 10-0 lead into halftime.
White’s speech in the locker room was simple.
“I just told them to stay confident,” White said. “(I told them), ‘We can get it done, just stay confident.’ And they did it.”
It started on the defensive side, where the Rams allowed Fort Valley just 66 second-half yards.
“We were just getting out of position in the first half and not playing how we had been coached on some of the plays,” Dudley said. “We just made the adjustments at halftime, and the D-line was awesome in the second half. I pretty much played off of them. The boys in front of me were some play makers.”
Three minutes after Alexander scored ASU’s first touchdown in the third quarter, Atkins caught a 42-yard pass from Rivers to give the Rams a 12-10 lead, which they kept until Alexander’s final TD.
The momentum, however, swung back and forth in the final minutes of what turned out to be a thrilling finish in front of 14,500 fans.
Fort Valley’s drive with 5:20 left stalled in Rams’ territory, but instead of going for it on a 4th-and-long, the Wildcats pinned ASU inside its 1-yard line with a perfect punt from Christopher Ward.
On the Rams’ first play from the 1, Rivers threw an interception to Thomas Wolfe III — but just over a minute later Albany State defensive back Armageddon Draughn answered with an interception of his own to give possession back to the Rams, who scored four plays later on Alexander’s catch-and-run down the ASU sideline.
“It’s a good rivalry game between us, and you just play in the moment in these types of games,” Alexander said. “You do what you have to do to get the win and leave it all on the field. That’s what we did (Saturday).”
Rivers finished the game 13-for-32 for 215 yards and two scores and was sacked four times, while Atkins led both teams in receiving with four catches for 81 yards.
Eady, Fort Valley’s freshman sensation who emerged as the starter late in the season, was effective in the first half but was pressured nearly every time he dropped back in the final two quarters.
It was that pressure from Albany State’s defensive front that was the difference in the game, FVSU head coach Donald Pittman said.
“We couldn’t run the ball on them, and they blitzed the (crap) out of us,” Pittman said. “That sums it up. We couldn’t move the ball offensively.”
Eady finished 14-for-25 for 191 yards and also rushed for 17 yards on 19 carries, and De’Angelo Smith finished with a team-high five catches for 79 yards for the Wildcats.