Albany State running back Adrian Alexander leads the Rams with 791 all-purpose yards but had one of his worst games of the year against Miles in the regular season (six rushes, 22 yards) when the teams played on Sept. 28. (Staff photo: John Millikan)
ATLANTA — Two years ago when Miles stunned Albany State in the inaugural SIAC championship game with a late field goal, the Rams were still able to sneak into the Division II playoffs as a No. 6 seed.
This time around, there will be no consolation prize if the Rams fall to the Golden Bears.
With rumors swirling that the Pioneer Bowl could be cancelled next month and both ASU and Miles certain not to receive an invite to the Division II playoffs, tonight’s SIAC title game between the divisional champions is likely the only prize left to play for.
And for ASU, it’s a prize that would vindicate a season that started off with four losses in five games, forcing the Rams to go on a four-game winning streak to clinch an East Division title and punch their ticket to the conference championship.
“This is not the best team we have had, but they have understood their strengths and weaknesses and maxed them out at the right time,” ASU coach Mike White said. “I think we are playing good at the right time. I am very proud of our leadership on this team and the way the guys have fought back.”
Initially, the teams were told that the winner of today’s game would represent the SIAC in the Dec. 7 Pioneer Bowl against the CIAA’s top team, but there have been reports that the annual HBCU bowl has been cancelled.
While SIAC commissioner Gregory Moore told The Herald earlier this week that he was “unaware of any announcement regarding the cancellation of the Pioneer Bowl,” the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal reported that it received a statement from the CIAA saying the game had been discontinued until further notice.
Pioneer Bowl or not, the Rams (5-4) feel fortunate to have a chance to get some revenge on West Division champion Miles (6-3), which has defeated ASU three straight times, including a 22-14 victory in Albany earlier this season.
“We are a lot better team than we were the first time we played them,” ASU quarterback Frank Rivers said. “The guys have been buying in these recent weeks and are all playing together and fighting through and finishing games together. We are tremendously better. I can’t really explain what was going on at the beginning of the season, but a lot of things are working for us now.”
Rivers, the junior transfer from Grambling State, bounced back from a rocky start to the season and has thrived under offensive coordinator Steve Smith in the past month with 11 passing touchdowns and one interception during the Rams’ winning streak.
But while Rivers and the ASU offense have consistently put points on the board recently, it’s been the Rams’ defense that has propelled the turnaround. With 23 sacks in the last four games — compared to just one sack in the first five games — the “Dirty Blue” defense has returned to its trademark dominant form.
“We are playing a lot better and playing with a lot more confidence,” White said. “I think when we played them last time versus now, we are just playing better. It’s not just one thing that kind of sticks out. We are just playing better as a team, especially defensively.”
The Rams have allowed just two touchdowns in the last three games and have been especially commanding in the second half.
“We have to come out hard (today),” freshman defensive lineman and former Mitchell County star Grover Stewart said. “Defensively we have been a second-half team. But if we come out in the first half and do what we have been doing in the second half, everything will be all right.”
The pressure, White said, will be on the offense as it will try to keep pace with an electric Miles offense that has scored an average of 37.5 points its last four games.
“We need to be efficient on third downs, and when we get (into the red zone) we need to come away with points,” White said. “This might be the most potent offense we have seen in our conference in a while. They are firing on all cylinders … and offensively we are going to have to get some first downs to keep these guys off the field.”
And Rivers, like the rest of his teammates, is ready for the challenge.
“You can’t ask for much more than to go from 1-4 to a championship,” the quarterback said. “I am tremendously proud of the guys. (Winning the championship) would mean everything to me. My first year as an Albany State Ram and leading my team to championship, it would mean the world to me.”