Golden Tigers claw Ruffin's Bears
TUSKEGEE, Ala. – The Golden Tigers were playing for nothing more than pride Saturday when they faced SIAC West Division champion Miles for Homecoming. But, that was enough as they gutted out a 27-25 victory at Abbott Memorial Stadium.
The Golden Tigers (4-5, 4-3 SIAC) are in the midst of their worst season since 2003. But, they were determined that the team’s 16 seniors would not lose their final home game. They also didn’t want them to go out with a losing record. A loss to the Golden Bears (6-4, 5-2 SIAC), who will play East Division champ Albany State in the inaugural conference championship game Saturday in Atlanta at Panther Stadium on the campus of Clark Atlanta, would have guaranteed that.
“That was a huge win,’’ freshman quarterback Justin Nared said. “We wanted to send the seniors out with a non-losing season and with a win in their last home game. It was all about the seniors.’’
The Golden Tigers can avoid a non-losing season with a victory against Alabama State in the 88th Turkey Day Classic on Thanksgiving Day at Cramton Bowl.
An additional source of motivation was the desire to beat former assistant coach Reginald Ruffin, who is in his first year as coach of the Golden Bears after spending the previous five seasons as the Golden Tigers’ defensive coordinator.
“It was a lot of emotion going against my former (position) coach,’’ said Golden Tigers senior linebacker Isaiah Person. “Winning means everything.’’
Miles dominated the game statistically. The Golden Bears outgained the Golden Tigers in total yards 490 yards to 228. However, the Golden Tigers sent the Golden Bears into the SIAC Championship game on a losing note by making plays in critical situations.
“They’re West champions,’’ Person said. “We had a bad season. We had to take this as our championship game because we let the conference championship slip through our hands.’’
The Golden Tigers’ 20-0 loss at Kentucky State two weeks ago knocked them out of the West race. It was evident from the start that the Golden Tigers were eager to make amends for the poor season as they played with pride and passion.
“They’re getting better every week,’’ Slater said. “Our goal is to be the best at the end of the season. We play hard every week. But, we still had some plays that we messed up. I believe we could have beaten them by a couple of touchdowns.’’
The Golden Tigers started the game on a positive note as Mark Hughes returned the opening kickoff 52 yards to the Miles’ 47-yard line. That set up a 50-yard field goal by Eduardo Murillo. That turn of events got the Homecoming crowd of 26,645 into the game from the outset. Murillo’s 50-yard field goal tied the school’s record for the longest field goal kicked by a Golden Tiger.
Miles took a 6-3 lead on a two-yard run by quarterback David Thomas with 2:31 left in the quarter, but the Golden Bears missed the point after touchdown kick, the first of three failed conversion attempts that spelled the difference in the game.
The Golden Tigers got a big play from their offense in the second quarter and took a 10-6 lead when Ryan Crespo burst up the middle for a 34-yard touchdown that put them ahead 10-6.
Miles drove smartly down the field on its next possession and scored in just 5 plays, covering 83 yards. Thomas ended the drive with another two-yard run to put Miles back on top, 13-10.
After Thomas' touchdown, the Golden Tigers took advantage of a short kickoff that gave them good field position to tie the score. Murillo booted a 38-yard field goal with 1:28 left in the half, and the game was deadlocked 13-13 entering the third quarter.
Miles seemed ready to take control of the game in the third quarter. The Golden Bears moved the ball efficiently, mixing Thomas’ passing with their running game. However, the Golden Tigers knocked the ball loose from Jordan Lewis at the end of a six-yard run at their 38 and recovered it.
The Golden Tigers then put together one of their most impressive drives of the season to regain the lead on Crespo’s second touchdown of the game, this time a one-yard run. They scored in just five plays with Nared throwing the ball just once.
Miles matched the Golden Tigers' score with an eight-play, 79-yard scoring drive that ended with Thomas’ third two-yard touchdown run of the game. Once again, the Golden Bears failed to convert the PAT. Holder Antonio Hagler had to run with the ball after he was unable to handle a low snap. The Golden Tigers stopped Hagler short of the end zone and remained ahead, 20-19.
Despite being ahead, the Golden Tigers were clearly in trouble. They were unable to stop Miles' running game, which chewed up yards with the read option. Jordan and Thomas posed the biggest problems for the Golden Tigers. Jordan gained 92 yards on 16 carries, and Thomas rushed for 89 yards and scored four touchdowns.
“They came with something new,’’ Person said. “We hadn’t seen that. That was a wrinkle they put in.’’
The Golden Bears rushed for 246 yards and averaged 4.5 yards a carry. Their ability to run the ball allowed Thomas to be effective throwing the ball. He completed 18 of 24 passes for 244 yards.
The fourth quarter began with Miles methodically moving the ball toward what would have been the go-ahead touchdown. The Golden Bears got the ball at their 20 following an interception in the end zone and drove to the Golden Tigers’ 34. That is when disaster struck.
Aaron Bennett sacked Thomas for a six-yard loss and knocked the ball loose. Chris Williams picked it up and rumbled to the Miles six-yard line before he was caught from behind and fumbled the ball out of bounds. Crespo scored from the two on second down for a 27-19 Golden Tiger lead.
“That was a big momentum shift,’’ Person said. “That was a must stop for us.”
Miles kept the pressure on the Golden Tigers with Thomas’ 16-yard touchdown run with 6:04 left in the game.
At that point, the Golden Tigers mounted their most important drive of the game. They gained only 22 yards on eight plays, but they took four minutes and 15 seconds off the clock by gaining two first downs.
“It was all about focus and execution,’’ senior wide receiver Wayne Williams said. “The offense executed and the defense did what it needed to do.’’
Miles got the ball at its 11-yard line with 1:49 left in the game to start its final possession. The Golden Bears drove to midfield, and Thomas completed an 11-yard pass to D.J. Fife on the last play from scrimmage. The Golden Tigers tackled Fife at the 34 as time expired.
The victory moved the Golden Tigers’ Homecoming record to 66-18-3 since 1925.