Albany State linebacker and former Monroe star Larry Whitfield celebrates after making a tackle in the backfield during last week’s game against Elizabeth City State. Whitfield and the Rams play Miles tonight in the SIAC opener for both teams. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)
ALBANY — There was dancing and singing and celebrating.
And Albany State’s Kareem Hess remembers all of it.
“They were celebrating like they won a national championship,” Hess said on Thursday, recalling Miles’ 2011 victory against ASU in the SIAC championship game and also the Golden Bears’ 41-6 whipping of ASU last season.
There was talk around the conference after last year’s blowout that the bragging rights for the SIAC’s top program officially shifted from Albany to Birmingham. Hess, however, believes tonight’s game against Miles is an opportunity to bring some of the swagger back to the Good Life City.
“We want to reclaim our spot back at the top of the conference,” the senior running back said. “We want to let the conference know that we are here. They might have counted us out because we went 6-4 last season, but we have been working.”
After starting the season with two narrow losses, the Rams (1-2) rebounded last week with a win against Elizabeth City State. And now ASU has a chance to wipe the slate clean on its rough start with a win in tonight’s SIAC opener, which kicks off a stretch of six conference games to end the regular season.
“This is a must-win,” ASU coach Mike White said. “It throws our season off if we lose, because we have to start hoping somebody else beats somebody. You don’t want to get in those scenarios. You want to stay in the driver’s seat and continue to win. We need to play this game, and play it tough.”
Miles is 0-2 after a pair of losses to nationally-ranked North Alabama and a tough West Georgia team and has been outscored 73-14. The Bears had a chance to get its first win of the season last week against Concordia College, but the Concordia team bus caught fire and then exploded on the way to Birmingham, and the game was cancelled. There were no injuries in the fire, but most of the team’s equipment was destroyed.
White knows not to be deceived by Miles’ winless record.
“They are very physical and very fast,” White said. “They hit you and come at you. They are going to be aggressive. I am always preaching to get off to a good start, and that is going to be important against this team because they are going to attack you right off the bat.”
Miles quarterback David Thomas has thrown for just one TD and 300 yards in the first two games, but White still called the senior “one of the best if not the best quarterback in the conference.” In 2012 against ASU, Thomas threw for 219 yards and one TD and had a QB efficiency rating of 140.4, and in the 2011 conference title game he threw for 158 yards and a TD and ran for 46 yards and another TD.
“The game he beat us in 2011, he made about four or five plays in that game that I was still amazed at when I watched (film of the game on Thursday),” White said. “We blitzed him one time, and he made a throw where I don’t even know if he saw the receiver. But it was right on target.”
The past two seasons, Thomas and the Bears have been able to beat the Rams with their speed on the outside, but that’s something ASU safety Dexter Moody is ready for tonight.
“We just have to play our assignments,” Moody said. “As long as we contain them on the outside, we should have a big day as far as stopping the run. I don’t expect them to get a big passing game going on.”
It’s been dangerous the last two seasons to put a ball in the air with Moody anywhere close. In his 13 games with the Rams, the senior has nine interceptions, including two picks that he returned for TDs. He’s been the catalyst of a defense that is fourth in the conference in points allowed (19), first in rushing yards allowed (76.7) and tied for third in interceptions (3).
Offensively, the Rams have found success on the ground with running backs Hess, Adrian Alexander and Phillip Moore. The three-headed monster has combined for 522 yards and averages nearly seven yards per carry.
Hess believes it’s the running game that can help the Rams snap their two-game skid against Miles.
“We need to run the ball well, and the offensive line needs to block well,” Hess said. “If we can do that then everything else will come. That’s what we want to do this season, run the ball. And we have three good backs who can do that.”
ASU quarterback Frank Rivers has struggled at times early in the season and has the second-worst completion percentage (48.1) in the conference and has thrown just as many interceptions (3) as touchdowns. He has aired it out 106 times — 11 more than any other QB in the conference — and has thrown for 106 yards A solid game against Miles could bring some confidence back to the transfer from Grambling State, who won the battle for the Rams’ starting QB position over Rodney Castlin during the summer.
Last year’s 35-point loss to Miles was ASU’s conference opener and the first time the Rams had started 0-1 in SIAC play since 2002. A win tonight would go a long way in restoring the Rams’ dominant presence in the conference — something White thinks his 2013 team is capable of.
“If we can continue to improve and continue to stay healthy, I think we can be a strong football team,” White said. “If our running game can keep going and our defense and continue to play good football, I think we can be a strong team when it’s all said and done.”