Albany State coach Mike White likes his football team a great deal right now.
It’s easy to see why.
Not only do the Golden Rams (6-2, 6-0 in the SIAC) have the top defense in the SIAC, and rank third in the nation, but they’ve won six consecutive games, clinching the East Division title and a berth in the conference championship game.
But more than that, White spotlights his team’s attitude heading into the regular-season finale against Fort Valley State (6-3, 4-2) this Saturday at 2 p.m. in the Fountain City Classic in Columbus, Ga.
“We’re pretty sound. We’re playing pretty good football,” White said. “Our two outside linebackers – Larry Whitfield and Tavarius Washington – are playing well, but (Sunday) at practice, when we went through our drills, they were fired up as anything to get ready to go play Fort Valley. Mentally, not only physically, we’ve been doing what we need to do.”
Albany State, the preseason pick to win the East, clinched the division when Morehouse defeated FVSU 24-21 last Saturday night. The Golden Rams had already routed Benedict 40-14 earlier that day, and many were expecting FVSU to defeat Morehouse and set up a showdown for the division title this week.
Instead, Albany State advanced to its third championship game in the four years of the event.
Miles defeated the Golden Rams 20-17 in 2011, and after Tuskegee won it in 2012, Albany State captured the conference title with a 17-14 victory over Miles last year.
Miles (6-3, 5-1) and Tuskegee (7-2, 6-0) meet Saturday to determine the West champ, which will meet Albany State at the Cramton Bowl on Nov. 15 in Montgomery, Ala.
“The whole thing about us, as a team, I think our leadership is what I’m most pleased about,” White said. “They came back and worked each week, whether we won or whether we lost, you really couldn’t tell it by the way we prepared. I’m really pleased with that. No, I really didn’t see us losing those two games and then wheel off the rest of them. I just thought we could be a solid team.”
Defense has long been a trademark of White’s teams, and that’s especially evident this season.
The Golden Rams have the SIAC’s most dominant defense.
They lead the conference in scoring defense (13.1 points), total defense (217.5 yards) and against the rush (80.2 yards). They’re second against the pass (137.2 yards) and No. 1 in pass efficiency defense (86.6 rating).
Benedict coach James Woody saw the devastation that Albany State’s defense can cause. The Golden Rams held the Tigers to 12 first downs, 20 yards rushing and picked off four passes in the 40-14 victory.
“They came out and dominated us thoroughly,” he said. “They are very, very tough. That is one of the better defensive teams I’ve seen Mike put together in a long, long, long time. They have quickness, and most important, they play sound. They’re very, very dominant.”
The strength of the defense is up front, where nose guard Damien Goosby, who is listed at 6 foot 3 and 370 pounds, and end Grover Stewart anchor the line.
Stewart is fifth in the SIAC with five sacks, but they also tie up blockers to allow Whitfield and Washington to roam and make tackles.
Washington is fourth in the conference with 8.9 tackles a game (71 total), to go with four sacks, and Whitfield averages 6.2 (50 total). Stewart, Washington, Whitfield and linebacker Jack Ndem are among the SIAC leaders in tackles for loss.
“Up front, our defensive line has been as been dominant as we’ve had in a while,” White said. “Teams really haven’t blocked those guys all year.”
And when the Golden Rams need to move the ball, they turn to running back Jarvis Small, who has rushed for more than 100 yards in seven consecutive games.
He had a season-high 234 yards and four touchdowns in the win over Benedict and leads the SIAC with 989 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.
He’s scored seven times in the past two games.
Small began the season deep on the depth chart, but took over the position in the second game, which was a surprise to White.
“I’d be lying if I said I expected Small to have a successful season, he said. “I think the offensive staff had him as the third running back at the beginning of the year.”
But Small, at 5 foot 7, 206 pounds has proven tough to stop.
“He’s maxing out all of his runs, really. When he gets one-on-one, he’s hard to tackle” White said. “That’s where the success comes from. He’s a tough kid. He’s a hard-working kid, the kind of kid you cheer for, knowing how he is. He’s a regular guy, not fast, not anything other than just a good solid running back.”