Albany State receiver Orion Ponder, left, celebrates with teammate Phillip Moore after scoring a touchdown in the first half of Saturday’s homecoming win against Morehouse, which kept the Rams alive in the race for an SIAC East Division title. (Staff photo: John Millikan)
ALBANY — Frank Rivers walked out of the locker room with a huge smile stretched across his face.
His teammates were right behind him, high-fiving and fist-bumping each other and the fans that showed up for Albany State’s 42-20 homecoming win against Morehouse on Saturday.
It was a celebration the Rams had been yearning for, one they felt they desperately needed.
And it might just be the celebration that turns ASU’s season around.
“We needed this real bad,” said Rivers, ASU’s quarterback who had the best game of his career. “I can’t even explain how bad we needed this. We needed a good win to start the second half of our season so we can go win a championship.”
Albany State (2-4, 1-2) won for the first time in a month and snapped a two-game skid, and the Rams still control their own destiny in the SIAC East Division, which means that despite their worst start in 22 years they can still play for a conference championship if they win out.
All week, ASU’s players were calling Saturday’s homecoming a “must win” and a “playoff game.”
Rivers played like it was both.
The junior transfer from Grambling State only threw 16 passes, but he completed 10 of them for 194 yards and five touchdowns without a turnover.
“I was just happy some guys stepped up and made some big plays for me,” Rivers said. “It was kind of wet and sometimes that slows the passing game down, but coach kept calling it and guys kept making plays.”
Rivers made more plays than anybody.
“Frank is on a roll right now,” ASU coach Mike White said. “He has been playing well the last few games. We just have to protect him and catch the ball. And that’s what we did.”
Rivers was the steady pulse throughout the game, while senior Quintory Braswell provided the fireworks.
The defensive back and return specialist ignited the Rams with a 57-yard punt return for a TD in the first quarter and then set up two touchdowns later in the game with long punt and interception returns.
“I’m proud of him,” White said about Braswell, a native of Jonesboro. “It was a great way for our senior to go out in his last homecoming. I am very proud of him.”
There was plenty to be proud of for ASU’s largest crowd of the season, which entered Albany State Coliseum unsure which Rams team they would see take the field. The Rams have looked brilliant at times this season — like in a 34-13 win in Week 3 against Elizabeth City State — but have been unable to close games in four down-to-the-wire losses.
Saturday’s victory was never in doubt.
On the first play from scrimmage, ASU defensive lineman Grover Stewart, a Camilla native, sacked Morehouse QB Joshua Harris for a 15-yard loss for the first sack or tackle for loss for a Ram lineman this season. It set a trend for the rest of the game as ASU racked up eight sacks.
The Rams forced a three-and-out on Morehouse’s first possession, and on the Albany State offense’s first play of the game Rivers hit running back Adrian Alexander for a 30 yard pass. Three plays later former Mitchell County star Jessie Atkins caught a 37-yard TD pass in traffic to put the Rams on the board.
ASU didn’t let off the gas pedal for the entire first half, scoring two minutes later on Braswell’s punt return and then again with 19 seconds left in the first quarter on a 25-yard pass from Rivers to Orion Ponder. The Rams then scored twice in the second quarter on a 12-yard pass from Rivers to Jarvis Small and a 52-yard catch-and-run from Rivers to Tevin Isom, giving ASU a 35-6 halftime lead.
Morehouse coach Rich Freeman said it was Braswell’s return with 9:30 left in the first quarter that broke his team’s back.
“We talked to our guys before they came out, and we didn’t want to do anything to give Albany State momentum, specifically in the kicking game,” Freeman said. “For them to return that punt for a touchdown, that hurt us. That took the wind out of our sails.”
The wind never picked back up for the Maroon Tigers, who fell to 2-5 overall and 0-3 in the SIAC with their third straight conference loss. They had just 117 total yards at halftime and were unable to effectively move the ball against an ASU defense that played its best half of the season.
“That’s Golden Rams defense,” Braswell said. “It’s in our history to play good defense. That’s all we’ve been known for is great defense.”
The Rams didn’t do much in the second half on offense, but they didn’t need to with a comfortable lead. Camilla’s Jaquan Williams scored ASU’s only second-half touchdown on an 8-yard pass from Rivers, which was set up by Braswell’s interception to the 7-yard line.
Freeman said it was only “a matter of time” for Rivers, who started the season rocky under new offensive coordinator Steve Smith, to turn things around.
“He’s a great player,” Freeman said about Rivers, who has thrown nine touchdowns and two interceptions his last three games. “We helped him out a lot by getting misaligned and leaving receivers running wide open.”
Atkins, the SIAC’s leading receiver, had a team-high three catches for 53 yards, while running back Adrian Alexander carried it eight times for a team-high 37 yards.
Stewart and Jonathan Toliver each had two sacks for ASU, while linebacker and former Monroe star Larry Whitfield had a game-high nine tackles and also had an interception.
Morehouse got 72 yards and a TD from running back Douglas Wyche, and Harris was 11-for-32 for 98 yards, one TD and two interceptions. Devon Mann caught the Maroon Tigers’ only receiving TD and had eight receptions for 83 yards.
The Rams stay in the SIAC East Division next Saturday with a game at Clark Atlanta and then return home Nov. 2 to host Benedict.