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PREVIEW: No room for error as Rams return to gridiron

Albany State’s Phillip Moore leads the team in rushing and will go up against a Lane defense today that is statistically one of the worst in the conference. (Reginald Christian/Albany State University)

Albany State’s Phillip Moore leads the team in rushing and will go up against a Lane defense today that is statistically one of the worst in the conference. (Reginald Christian/Albany State University)

ALBANY — Mike White shook his head, not even needing to answer the question.

Then after a long pause, Albany State’s head coach responded when asked what a loss today against Lane College would do to his program.

“It would change everything,” White said on Wednesday. “For the first time, it would get cloudy. We wouldn’t be able to see the end because we would be depending on somebody else to win. I really don’t want to think about that.”

It’s been a tough season to stomach so far for an Albany State program accustomed to winning, but despite a 1-3 record the Rams surprisingly control their own destiny in the SIAC East. There are five games left in the regular season — starting with today’s contest in Jackson, Tenn. — and five wins for the Rams will make them East Division champs and send them to Atlanta for the SIAC championship game.

It’s a long road with no room for error, but it’s one that the Rams have been on before. They started last season 1-3 before rattling off five straight wins to move atop the East Division standings, and a season-ending loss to Fort Valley State was the only thing standing between ASU and a trip to Atlanta.

White understands the pressure that comes with half of a season full of must-win games.

“There is pressure. It’s weighty, but this is it for us,” he said. “Right now the goal to win the conference is still attainable. We still could do it. After losing three games, that’s rare to be able to do that.

“If we win this week and win next week and keep on winning, we can get that goal. We know we need a five- or six-game winning streak to pull this thing off, but first things first we have to deal with Lane.”

Lane is 3-2 overall and 1-1 in the conference and is coming off a 28-27 win against Stillman thanks to a clutch performance from quarterback Chris Rini, who does it all for the Dragons. In the win, Rini threw for 204 yards and a TD, ran it 16 times for 36 yards and a score and even was 2-for-3 on PATs as the team’s place kicker.

“The word to describe him is crafty,” White said. “He will throw all kinds of balls. He just doesn’t want to be sacked. He runs well.”

He ran and passed all over the Rams last year before ASU safety Dexter Moody leveled him in the second half of the Rams’ 36-14 win, knocking him out of the game with a tackle that ultimately ended his season.

Rini is back this year and is first in the SIAC with a 70 percent completion percentage and second in every other major passing category (10 TDs, 1,233 yards, 148.8 passing efficiency).

The senior QB has changed his jersey from No. 17 to No. 11, but don’t expect him to hide from Moody and his bone-crunching hits that easily.

“I don’t expect him to try to hide from me,” said Moody, who is leading the Rams with two interceptions and is getting serious interest from a number of NFL teams. “He is a very good athlete, so he is going to be noticed out there.”

While Lane has leaned on Rini offensively this season, the Dragons have struggled on defense and give up a SIAC-worst 240 passing yards per game. Their 409 yards allowed per game rank ahead of only lowly Central State University in the conference.

That could be good news for an ASU team that is likely playing without star wideout and former Mitchell County star Jessie Atkins, who is doubtful with a bruised elbow. Atkins has been QB Frank Rivers’ favorite target this season, while starting running back Phillip Moore is leading the team with 45 rushes for 255 yards and a score.

Moore was held to 22 yards on nine rushes two weeks ago in ASU’s loss to Miles, which was by far the Valdosta native’s worst outing of the season.

“We were able to move the ball, but every time we would make a big play a penalty would come,” Moore said. “It just sucked the life out of us.

“The only thing I have been focused on since leaving Miles is to beat Lane. It’s been chewing at me since we walked off that field.”

Moody said the loss to Miles pushed the entire team during the Rams’ bye week.

“Miles brought the punch to us, and I know in my heart that they aren’t a better team than we are,” Moody said. “They aren’t more physical than we are, but they were that night. Now we are taking it game-by-game, knowing that we have five we have to win. We dug ourselves in this hole, but I expect us to step up to this challenge and come out strong.”