Golden Tigers fall to Hornets 30-21 in Turkey Day Classic
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A second-half rally came up short Thursday at Cramton Bowl, and the Golden Tigers suffered a 30-21 loss to Alabama State in the 88th Turkey Day Classic.
The Golden Tigers (4-6) spotted Alabama State (8-3) a 17-0 first-quarter lead, and they trailed 23-7 at the half before mounting a comeback. The loss saddled the Golden Tigers with their first losing record since they were 5-6 in 2003; their four wins is the fewest since they were 2-9 in 1995.
The win for Alabama State was only the fourth for the Hornets in the last 16 Turkey Day Classics.
The Golden Tigers, whose roster includes 60 true freshmen and 10 redshirt freshmen, played as though they were stuck in mud in the first quarter. Alabama State scored on three straight possessions after going three-and-out on its first drive, and the Hornets were on top 17-0 going into the second quarter.
“It seemed like we were sitting back and taking the blows instead of putting the pressure on them,’’ Coach Willie Slater said. “We talked about that at the half. The kids kept fighting and never gave up.’’
The score at the end of the first period did not tell the full story of how dominant the Hornets were. They gained 214 total yards to just nine for the Golden Tigers, who went three-and-out on three of their four possessions in the period and threw an interception on the other.
Alabama State finished the game with 455 yards of total offense.
The Golden Tigers got untracked on both sides of the ball in the second quarter as they found a way to slow down the Hornets’ offense and began to move the ball themselves.
On their first possession of the second period, the Golden Tigers drove 67 yards in 14 plays for their first score, which came on DeMario Pippen’s two-yard run with 6:37 left in the half.
Alabama State increased its lead to 23-7 when backup quarterback Devin Dominguez threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to running back Tim Clark with 36 seconds remaining. Clark was a thorn in the Golden Tigers’ side the entire game as he rushed for a career-high 143 yards and scored the touchdown that sealed the Hornets’ victory on a one-yard run in the fourth quarter.
Despite giving up points late in the half, the Golden Tigers had momentum on their side going into the third quarter. They knocked Alabama State starting quarterback Greg Jenkins out of the game with a broken right wrist when they sacked him with 42 seconds left in the first half, and the Golden Tigers were able to slow down the Hornets’ offense in the final two periods with him on the bench.
The Golden Tigers tightened the score to 23-14 with 4:35 left in the third quarter when Adam Lucas returned an interception 31 yards for a touchdown. Lucas’ touchdown breathed new life into the Golden Tigers, who missed a scoring opportunity on their first possession of the second half. They drove 53 yards to Alabama State’s seven-yard line where they faced a fourth-and-two play. The Hornets turned the Golden Tigers back when they stopped Michael Thornton for no gain.
“I thought we could make it,’’ Slater said. “I just made a bad decision. I regret we did not come out of there with points. It was a mistake on my part.’’
Still early in the fourth quarter, the Golden Tigers appeared poised to come all the way back and take the lead.
Backup quarterback Jeremy Williams, who replaced freshman starter Justin Nared with 2:31 left in the third quarter, marched the Golden Tigers 62 yards in nine plays to make the score 23-21 with 12:36 remaining in the game as Pippen scored on an 11-yard run.
The situation looked promising when Stewart Moody pinned the Hornets on their five-yard line with a 46-yard punt, and the Golden Tigers’ forced Alabama State to go three-and-out.
The Golden Tigers expected to get the ball in excellent position to take the lead with a field goal or a touchdown. However, that scenario never developed as Bobby Wenzig got off a 66-yard punt on fourth down and the ball rolled dead at the Golden Tigers’ 21-yard line.
From that point, the Golden Tigers’ offense went in reverse. Williams was dropped for a four-yard loss when he ran a quarterback draw on third-and-five, and the Golden Tigers were whistled for consecutive false starts on fourth down. Forced to punt from his 12-yard line, Moody got off a 44-yard kick that gave the Hornets the ball at their 44 with 3:24 left.
Clark broke a backbreaking 39-yard run on first down that moved the ball to the Golden Tigers’ 17. Four plays later, plays later he applied the coupe de grace with a one-yard touchdown run for the final margin.
The Golden Tigers were the preseason favorite to win the SIAC West Division race. However, things started going bad for them in training camp and continued throughout the season.
Senior offensive linemen Ryan Jackson and Phillip Spear suffered injuries, and Derrick Jackson left the team. That forced Slater to play two freshmen on the left side of the offensive line in addition to having to go with new running backs after losing three fifth-year players at that position from the 2010 team.
As the season progressed, Slater turned to Nared, another freshman at quarterback after Williams performed poorly as the starter in the opening game and Terry Bradden, a transfer from Howard, failed to grasp the offense.
“We had to go through some growing pains with the freshman,’’ Slater said. “He got better, but he still did not grasp the concept of throwing the ball down field because he did not read defenses in high school.’’
In the final analysis, Slater blames himself and his staff for the Golden Tigers not having a better season.
“We were 4-6. That is unacceptable,’’ he said. “As for the effort and doing everything we asked them to do, this was a great group of kids. Maybe we failed them as coaches because we could not figure out what they could do better. We got better, but not good enough to beat all the teams we played.’’
Slater, who has coached for 32 years, 30 at the collegiate level, said this was the most frustrating season of his career.
“I’m very disappointed in the season,’’ he said. “It is my fault. I am the person who recruited them. It was just one of those years where I could not do anything about it. It seemed like everything happened at the exact right time for us to fail. I have been a part of bad teams that did not win, and you knew we were not going to win because we did not have the players. I have never been part of a team that was good enough and did not get it done. I thought we were good enough.’’
Despite the Golden Tigers’ disappointing record this season, Slater is optimistic about their prospects for 2012.
“We’ve got some young people who are going to be really good players,’’ he said. “We have to add to that group. It is still going to be a tough job. There will be growing pains with the people we bring in. Nevertheless, we have to find some experienced players and get them in here. .We have to make some decisions about how we handle players, how we are going to coach them. We have to do what is best for the team.’’