Albany State running back Phillip Moore smiles during the Rams’ homecoming win last week against Morehouse. The Rams hope to keep their momentum alive today at Clark Atlanta in a must-win SIAC East game. (Staff photo: John Millikan)
ATLANTA — There’s been three trips out of state for the Albany State football team this season and three long, quiet bus rides home.
The Rams are hoping their trip back from Atlanta tonight will be a little more enjoyable.
ASU (2-4, 1-0 SIAC East) is looking for its first road win of the season when it plays Clark Atlanta (2-4, 1-2) today, but luckily for the Rams these trips to Atlanta aren’t your typical road games.
“Our alumni up there make us feel at home,” said ASU senior linebacker Marcavius Dudley, noting the large presence of ASU alumni and fans in the Atlanta area. “It’s just like it’s a home game in Albany.”
The Rams are 0-3 on the road with losses to North Greenville, Miles and Lane, but they need to snap that streak today if they want to keep their hopes alive of returning to Atlanta on Nov. 16 for the SIAC championship game. ASU still controls its own destiny in the SIAC East Division and could take a huge step toward extending their season with a win today.
“There is still the same pressure on us,” ASU quarterback Frank Rivers said. “We have to win out if we want to make it to the championship. There’s still the same amount of intensity as we had last week.”
Rivers and the Rams had their best game of the season during homecoming last week when they rolled over Morehouse, 42-20, thanks to a career-high five TDs from Rivers. The Rams’ passing game has come alive in recent weeks and has emerged as the team’s primary threat on offense.
Rivers has spread the ball around in the latter half of the season, but his favorite target is still former Mitchell County star Jessie Atkins, who leads the SIAC in receiving with 90.8 yards per game and has hauled in a team-high five TDs and 454 yards.
“The passing game is a very, very important part of our offense,” Atkins said. “We have receivers who can make plays. When the ball is in the air, you can guarantee we are going to come down with it and make a play.”
Today, it will be ASU’s air attack against the best ground game in the SIAC.
Clark Atlanta averages an eye-popping 284 rushing yards per game with its Wing-T offense, and running backs Montavious Taylor and Bradley Battles are Nos. 2 and 3 in the conference in rushing.
ASU coach and defensive coordinator Mike White declined to comment about the game, but Dudley, the team’s starting middle linebacker, said he and his teammates need to worry about their individual assignments to stop Clark’s run game.
“If you try to stop every back and every play, then you will be in trouble,” Dudley said. “We need to stay in our alignment and assignment and be where we are supposed to be when we are supposed to be there.”
Rivers, who has risen to third in the SIAC with a 131.6 passer’s rating, has caught fire the last three games and has thrown nine TDs and only two interceptions during that stretch. But the junior transfer from Grambling State knows his touches might be limited today with the way Clark Atlanta controls the time of possession.
“They can take a lot of time off the clock, so when we do have the ball we have to execute and keep the pressure off our defense,” Rivers said.
ASU has beaten Clark Atlanta 11 straight times, but the Rams have escaped with one-possession victories in three of their last six meetings with the Panthers. It’s Rivers’ first game against Clark Atlanta, but it came as no surprise to him that the Panthers often seem to give the Rams a tough test.
“I have learned from being here this season that we are pretty much going to get everybody’s best game,” Rivers said. “We have an ‘X’ on our back, and everybody is out to beat Albany State.”
It’s Clark’s homecoming, but celebration around the campus has been somewhat subdued this week as the football program has mourned the loss of former head coach Daryl McNeill, who coached the Panthers from 2010-12 but was fired after a 2-8 record last season.
McNeill died Oct. 19 at Cottingham Hospice House in Seneca, S.C., and his funeral was Friday afternoon.