Albany State receiver and former Mitchell County star Jessie Atkins fends off Miles linebacker Arenza Johnson, Jr., during the first half of Saturday night’s game at Lakewood Stadium in Atlanta. (Staff photo: John Millikan)
ALBANY — Once left for dead, the Albany State Rams never looked more alive Saturday night at Lakewood Stadium in Atlanta.
Trailing by a touchdown entering the fourth quarter of the SIAC championship game against Miles, the Rams scored 10 straight points to complete one of the best turnaround seasons in program history with a 17-14 victory, capturing the team’s 20th conference title.
Saturday’s championship was one for the ages.
The Rams, who started the season 1-4, won their fifth straight game in dramatic fashion and avenged a 2011 loss to the Golden Bears in the inaugural SIAC championship game.
It was Albany State’s turn to hoist the trophy this time.
Rams star defensive back Dexter Moody, the game’s unanimous MVP, had a blocked punt and then an interception in the ASU end zone in the second half, setting up Ram scores with both monumental plays.
It turned into an iconic celebration for the Rams — one that nobody saw coming even a month ago when the team needed to run the table during its last four games to even make it to the championship.
The “Dirty Blue” defense came up with four big stops in the final minute during Miles’ potential game-winning drive, and then the Rams danced and celebrated near midfield, where moments later they were awarded their first conference championship trophy since 2010.
Lenard Walker put the Rams on the scoreboard first with a 17-yard touchdown catch from Frank Rivers with 4:30 left in the first quarter, giving the Rams a first-half lead for the first time since Oct. 26 against Clark Atlanta.
But the lead wouldn’t last long.
On the Golden Bears’ next drive — which started on the Miles’ 5-yard line — they marched down the field over the span of seven minutes and scored on a play-action pass from David Thomas to Antonio Pitts with 12:26 on the clock, tying the game at 7-7.
Less than two minutes later, ASU receiver and former Mitchell County star Jessie Atkins caught a short slant pass from Rivers but fumbled moments later, handing the ball back to the Golden Bears, who then scored on a 5-yard rush from Thomas to take a 14-7 lead.
For the first two quarters, Miles rode Thomas, who didn’t play when the two teams met in the regular season on Sept. 28. The senior signal-caller was 11-for-18 in the first half for 104 yards, ran it six times for 20 yards and took the Golden Bears into the end zone in both of their red zone opportunities.
Junior quarterback Demetrice Price took over in the second half for the Golden Bears, who have rotated quarterbacks all season. Price, however, struggled to keep Miles’ momentum going, and instead it was the Rams who took control of the game when Dexter Moody blocked a punt with 1:45 left in the third quarter near midfield.
The Rams kept their ensuing drive alive when Rivers connected with receiver Tevin Isom on a third down but had to settle for a Zachary Holley 28-yard field in the opening seconds of the fourth quarter to pull within four points.
Thomas re-entered the game in the fourth quarter, and directed the Golden Bears all the way into the red zone, but on a third down from the 5-yard line, Moody got his third interception of the season with a pick in the back of the end zone.
The Rams then took a 17-14 lead with 8:30 left on an Adrian Alexander 4-yard rush, which was set up by an Untayous Benson fumble recovery on the 4-yard line after a muffed punt by Fife.
ASU’s defense held the Golden Bears in check the rest of the way, snapping a three-game skid against Miles and ending the year with a 6-4 record.