Following a loss at Lane College back on Oct. 12, the Albany State Golden Rams' season had been pretty much left for dead.
Albany State was 1-4, an uncharacteristically slow start, and the chances of playing for a Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship seemed dim.
However, on Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium, the Golden Rams continued their recent surge as they knocked off Fort Valley State, 19-10, in the 24th annual Fountain City Classic at A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium.
The win was Albany State's fourth straight and sends the Golden Rams (5-4) into next week's SIAC
championship game against Miles College (6-3). That game will be at Lakewood Stadium in Atlanta.
"I'm very proud of these kids," Albany State coach Mike White said. "We believed we could come back from the start we had and to see it happen, especially with the Fountain City Classic being the game that sent us into the title game, was pretty sweet. Our seniors and leadership never really let up, even when we were 1-4. We knew if we started winning games, we could control our own destiny and we did."
Albany State has now won 10 of the last 12 meetings between the two teams and the all-time series, which dates back to 1949, is tied, 31-31-3.
Both teams spent the first seven minutes of the game sputtering on offense until Fort Valley (4-6) -- which would've gone to the SIAC title game if it'd won -- got a turnover on downs at the Wildcats' 36-yard line. Fort Valley then went 64 yards in nine plays, taking over six minutes off the clock before Malcolm Eady found Donte Warren for a 22-yard touchdown pass. Christopher Ward made the extra point to give the Wildcats a 7-0 lead they would hold after one quarter.
Following a short Albany State punt, Fort Valley took over on its 41 and drove to the Golden Rams' 4-yard line before settling for a 23-yard field goal by Ward to go up 10-0 midway through the second quarter. The Wildcats would take that lead into the locker room at halftime.
Fort Valley's defense was the story of the opening two quarters, as the Wildcats allowed just 45 yards on 28 offensive plays by Albany State. Golden Rams quarterback Frank Rivers was just 4-for-16 passing for 18 yards and was sacked three times, while the ground game managed just 27 yards on 12 carries.
Meanwhile, Fort Valley was able to get 156 yards on its 27 plays in the first half. Eady was 8-for-9 for 124 yards and a touchdown and De'Angelo Smith and Warren had three catches apiece for 57 and 49 yards, respectively.
Albany State picked things up in the third quarter, forcing a turnover on Fort Valley's opening possession of the second half and then going 48 yards in six plays to score on a 14-yard touchdown run by Adrian Alexander. However, the snap on the extra point snap was bad, so Fort Valley still led 10-6 with 10:37 to go in the third period.
Fort Valley returned the subsequent kickoff to the Albany State 23, but Ward missed a 38-yard field goal to keep it at 10-6. The Golden Rams kept the momentum in their corner with a three-play, 80-yard drive capped off by a 42-yard touchdown pass from Rivers to Jessie Atkins. However, the extra point was off again and Albany State led 12-10 with 7:58 left in the third quarter.
"We didn't make a lot of major changes at halftime," White said. "We just fixed some small things. We made one or two plays and the momentum of the game flipped. It was a great ball game."
Fort Valley had a chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter, driving to the Golden Rams' 26-yard line, but a sack on a third-down play forced the Wildcats to punt. However, Thomas Wolfe intercepted Rivers on Albany State's first play and the Wildcats were back in business at the Albany State 39.
Three plays later, though, Eady was picked off himself, this time by cornerback Armageddon Draughn. Starting on its own 15 with 3:51 to go, Albany State got a first down, but was facing a third-and-10 when Rivers lobbed a screen pass to Alexander, who sprinted 64 yards for a touchdown to put the Golden Rams up 19-10 and seal the victory.
"I really thought our first touchdown is what turned the momentum of the game," said White. "That got our offense going and our defense started believing they could get some stops. But it was that first touchdown that got us going."
For the game, Rivers was 13-for-32 for 215 yards, two touchdowns and an interception (along with being sacked four times). Alexander had 10 carries for 49 yards and a score as well as three receptions for 69 yards and a touchdown. Atkins was Rivers' top target with four catches for 81 yards and a touchdown.
Eady completed just six of his 16 second-half passes and wound up 14-for-25 for 191 yards, one touchdown and a pick. However, he was sacked five times and the Wildcats had only 77 total yards in the second half. D'Angelo Smith hauled in five passes for 79 yards in the loss.