LEFT: Albany State running back Phillip Moore looks for some open space during Saturday's game against North Greenville. Moore broke several long runs in the fourth quarter to help the Rams erase a 17-point deficit. (Reginal Christian/Special to The Herald). RIGHT: Tuskegee's Hoderick Lowe tries to escape the tackle of Alabama A&M's A.J. Clark last Saturday in Huntsville, Ala., where the Golden Tigers rolled to a season-opening win. (Eric Schultz/Special to The Herald)
ALBANY — For Albany State coach Mike White, there’s little doubt Tuskegee will play for an SIAC championship later this season.
Tonight, White will find out if his Rams have what it takes to meet the Golden Tigers in Atlanta on Nov. 16 for the third annual conference title game.
ASU and Tuskegee, the two teams picked by the conference’s coaches during the preseason to win their respective divisions, meet tonight at the Albany State Coliseum and it could very likely be a championship preview between two programs that have combined to win 16 of the last 20 SIAC titles.
“I know they are good enough to be there,” White said. “And I hope we are, too. It would be nice to make it that far, especially after coming off a loss in your first game. Time will see how good we will be.”
The Rams are coming off a season-opening loss to North Greenville when they trailed by 17 points entering the fourth quarter and fought all the way back to take the lead, only to watch the host Crusaders hit a game-winning field goal in the final minute.
That inspired comeback in the final 12 minutes of last week’s game might be the momentum the Rams need to shock a Tuskegee team ranked 19th in the nation.
“We started that game slow, so picking up the momentum in the fourth quarter lets us know that we can be effective and can make plays,” ASU quarterback Frank Rivers said. “We can get this done. There are no excuses now.”
Rivers dropped back to pass 46 times in last Saturday’s loss to North Greenville — twice as often as ASU handed the ball off to its running backs — and the Rams’ offense will likely continue to be pass-happy against Tuskegee.
“We went into last week’s game, and I told the team and staff that what you do your first game is who you are,” White said. “It’s like when you look in the mirror and think you look a lot slimmer than you really are, but you are who you are. So I expect us to keep throwing the ball a little more than we run it.”
Rivers completed 19 of his 46 passes for 259 yards and threw two interceptions, but he showed his on-the-field chemistry with Rams receiver and former Mitchell County star Jessie Atkins, who caught 11 passes for 162 yards and two interceptions.
That duo, along with the rest of the Rams offense, will go up against a Tuskegee team that held Alabama A&M to 284 total yards in a 23-7 season-opening win that shocked many in the Division II community.
“Yeah, I was surprised to see that,” said White, who is going for career win No. 100 for a third time after coming up short in last year’s season-finale loss to Fort Valley State and again on Saturday at North Greenville. “But Tuskegee has always been pretty consistent. They are very balanced. They can run and pass. They are well-coached and don’t make a lot of mistakes. A lot of teams get into trouble just like Alabama A&M last week.”
The rivals last met in 2010 when ASU beat Tuskegee, 34-6, but the programs have gone in slightly different directions since that last meeting. Since 2011, Tuskegee is 15-8 overall and won the conference championship last season, while Albany State is 14-9 overall but is coming off its worst season in a decade in 2012 when it finished 6-4 and missed the Division II playoffs.
Tonight is no ordinary regular-season matchup between a pair of teams that want to set the tone for the rest of the conference season.
“When we play Tuskegee it is always intense,” ASU center and offensive captain Hakeem Lassiter said. “They expect us two teams to be in the championship game, so it’s going to be intense again. The emotions are going to be high, but we have to stay focused on what we need to do.”
Lassiter and the offense struggled mightily for much of last week’s opener and were held out of the end zone until the opening moments of the fourth quarter when Rivers found Atkins for their first touchdown.
Tuskegee, on the other hand, got off to a blazing start last week and jumped ahead 14-0 in the first quarter and took a 17-0 lead into halftime against an Alabama A&M team that blew out Division I Grambling State in Week 1. Tuskegee was led by quarterback Justin Nared, who was 9-for-15 for 176 yards and three TDs.
“He is an efficient guy,” White said of Nared. “He doesn’t make mistakes and does a good job with the ball and throws it away when he needs to. He just does a good job with the football.”
North Greenville quarterback Nelson Hughes was 24-for-44 last week for 216 yards and three TDs, but picked the ASU secondary apart in the final two minutes when he marched down the field to set up the game-winning field goal.
The ASU defense allowed 306 total yards, created just one turnover and allowed the Crusaders to score all five times they were in the red zone.
In other words, White is looking for a better performance today when the Rams go up against a more efficient — and more dangerous — Tuskegee offense.
“When the defense looks in the mirror, they think they are a little tougher than what they really are right now,” White said. “They aren’t really there yet. We always talk about being the fire department. When fires pop up we go put them out. Last week that fire happened right there in that closing drive, and we didn’t put it out.”
Lassiter expects nothing short of fireworks tonight when his Rams try to establish themselves as a team to beat in the conference.
“It’s grind time,” Lassiter said, referring to a rally cry the lineman has coined this season. “That’s what we do, we grind. We get down and dirty and physical. We do whatever we have to do and execute. (Today) is going to be a good one. It’s grind time, but it’s also execute time.”