Albany State quarterback Frank Rivers throws a pass during the first half of Saturday’s season opener at North Greenville (S.C.) University. Rivers, a transfer from Grambling State, and the ASU offense struggled early in the game. (Reginald Christian/Special to The Herald) Albany State quarterback Frank Rivers throws a pass during the first half of Saturday’s season opener at North Greenville (S.C.) University. Rivers, a transfer from Grambling State, and the ASU offense struggled early in the game. (Reginald Christian/Special to The Herald)
TRAVELERS REST, S.C. — One of the biggest fourth-quarter comebacks in Albany State history slipped away Saturday as the Rams watched North Greenville’s Justin Gravely hit a 31-yard field goal with 42 seconds left to win the season opener for both teams, 26-24.
It was a heartbreaker for the Rams, who erased a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter and took a 24-23 lead with 2:55 left before North Greenville marched down the field for the game-winning field goal.
Frank Rivers, a transfer quarterback from Grambling State, overcame a rough start and put the Rams on his back in the final 12 minutes to lead the improbable comeback.
After a first half when he completed just 9-of-23 passes, Rivers threw two TDs to Camilla native Jessie Atkins in the final quarter, while Valdosta native Phillip Moore, who rushed for 68 yards in the second half, ran in for a 6-yard score to give ASU 18 unanswered points.
Rivers finished the game with 266 yards passing, two TDs and two interceptions, while Atkins, last year’s leading receiver for the Rams, had 11 catches for 163 yards.
Albany State’s offense starting struggling from the opening kickoff when the Rams went three-and-out and gave North Greenville good field position after a poor punt from Ryan Latner. The Crusaders capitalized with a Gravely 37-yard field goal to take an early 3-0 lead, and then North Greenville took a 9-0 lead on the opening play of the second quarter on a 4-yard pass from quarterback Nelson Hughes.
Rivers was sacked twice in the first quarter and fumbled both times, with ASU offensive lineman Darvel Nelson falling on one and the Crusaders recovering the other.
The Rams finally got on the board with 2:37 left when sophomore place kicker
Zachary Holley nailed a 39-yard field goal, which was set up by a 39-yard pass from Rivers to Atkins.
After a NGU three-and-out the Rams marched back down the field in the closing moments of the first half, setting up another Holley field goal. With three seconds before the half, Holley, a grad of South Gwinnett High School who hit just two field goals all of last season, hit a 37-yard FG to give the Rams momentum heading into the locker room.
The Crusaders, however, stole the momentum right back with a TD pass from QB Nelson Hughes three minutes into the half, and then nearly broke ASU’s back with a TD pass from Hughes to Trey Walker on the final play of the third quarter to take a 23-6 lead.
A slimmer of hope returned to the Rams’ sideline with 11:38 left in the game when Atkins caught a 31-yard TD pass from Rivers, which was set up by an 18-yard catch from ASU running back Kareem Hess on the previous play.
ASU’s final two TDs were a 6-yard TD run from Moore and a 14-yard pass from Rivers to Atkins before Gravely’s game winning FG.
NOTES: The last time the Rams lost a season opener was 2007 when they fell to North Carolina Central, 20-0. … North Greenville has now won five games in a row dating back to last season.