Albany State linebacker and former Monroe star Larry Whitfield reacts after a sack earlier in the season against Elizabeth City State. Whitfield and the ASU defense played their best game of the season Saturday against Clark Atlanta and hope to continue that dominance in the final weeks of the season. (Staff photo: John Millikan)
ALBANY — The Albany State football team can’t afford to lose another game this season if it wants to keep its hopes alive of playing for an SIAC championship.
Last Saturday, the ASU defense played like it couldn’t afford to give up a yard.
In a performance that rivaled any defensive classic the storied “Dirty Blue” defense has displayed in the past decade, the Rams held Clark Atlanta to 54 total yards and four first downs in the 30-7 victory.
“That felt great, just out there having fun,” ASU linebacker Tavaruis Washington said about Saturday’s game. “We had a great week of preparing for the team, and everybody was focused.”
ASU (3-4, 2-0 SIAC East) has muscled its way to the top of the East Division standings, but staying there will largely depend on the defense in the final two regular-season games — and in particular the defensive line, which has struggled against teams with good passing games, which the Rams will see Saturday when Benedict comes to town.
“For us to finish well this year, they have to play good,” ASU coach Mike White said about the defensive line. “For the defense to be as effective as it was Saturday, they have to play well.”
Clark Atlanta, which entered Saturday’s game averaging more than 200 yards on the ground, was held to 36 rushing yards thanks to nose guard Damien Goosby and ends Arkeen Riley and Camilla native Grover Stewart.
“For us to finish like we want to, they are the ones that need to be the difference,” White said. “We have been inconsistent with our pass rush and that was a game where we didn’t need to pass rush. That game was all about the run game. We still have some issues (with the pass rush) that we still need to clean up.”
The Rams had struggled to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks up until the Oct. 19 victory against Morehouse when they sacked Golden Tigers QBs eight times and held starter Joshua Harris to 98 yards passing on 11-of-31.
White used safety Dexter Moody in several blitzing schemes against Morehouse, something the 13-year coach isn’t ruling out Saturday against a Benedict team that is third in the conference in passing.
“I hope we don’t have to use him, but that’s part of what we do right now,” White said. “We are rushing with a speed group, and he is part of that speed group.”
FAITH IN THE KICKING GAME: Zachary Holley walked away from the football field, vowing to never return after a rough 2012 season as Albany State’s placekicker.
“After last season, I had the thought of, ‘Is this really something I want to do?’ ” said Holley, who lost his starting job last year after missing two PATs in a 13-12 loss to Elizabeth City State in the third game of the season. “It was a bad year, and it really had my mind messed up.”
Holley, a sophomore, had stopped training and had decided to hang up the cleats for good.
But then the ASU coaching staff reached out to Holley in the summer and convinced the South Gwinnett grad to give his leg one more shot.
“They decided to give me another shot, so I took it,” Holley said.
Holley has thrived in his second year as a Ram and has emerged as the SIAC leader in every place kicking category (8-for-10 on field goal attempts, 20-for-21 on PATs and 44 points).
“He’s been money when we have needed him,” White said. “He’s not a long-range guy, but when that guy gets inside that 20-yard line he can get it up through there.”
Holley, who hit all three of his field goal attempts Saturday against Clark, said he’s glad to be back with the team.
“I think everything happens for a reason,” he said. “I feel like I have the support of my fellow players and coaches. This is probably one of the best seasons I have ever had, and it’s going really well for me.”
REMEMBER ME?: The last time Kenneth Hurley played a football game in Dougherty County, the speedy running back was part of a dynamic Lee County offense that rolled to big wins at Hugh Mills Stadium against Dougherty High and Westover in 2012.
The Leesburg native and former Herald Dynamite Dozen selection returns to Southwest Georgia on Saturday as one of Benedict’s top running backs, averaging 34 yards a game with one TD.
“He’s going to be a good player for them for awhile,” White said about Hurley. “They seem to have some athletes where you just want to put the ball in their hands, and he is one of them.”
The Rams recruited Hurley last season but already had several comparable backs on their roster and ultimately couldn’t match Benedict’s offer.
“I was disappointed that we didn’t work that out,” White said. “We made an offer, but Benedict made a better offer.”