MANKATO, Minn. —
The Valdosta State football team is just four quarters away from playing for a national championship.
The Blazers (10-2) will have to get through the undefeated Minnesota State-Mankato Mavericks (13-0) to advance to their fourth national championship game in 11 years. The two teams square off in the Division II national semifinals today at 3 p.m. Eastern from Mankato’s Blakeslee Stadium.
“We feel pretty good,” said wide receiver Quin Roberson when meeting with reporters this week, “just like any week when we lock into the game plan and trust what the coaches have put together.”
The Blazers made the 1,132-mile flight to Minneapolis on Friday, then bused 85 miles south to Mankato. Once in Mankato, they settled into their hotel, and attempted to keep a normal road schedule.
“We are taking a lot of the stuff that we did in the Saginaw (Valley) trip,” Valdosta State head coach David Dean said. “It is very similar going up north in a different environment. You learn from your mistakes, you learn from what you did well and that is exactly what we are doing.”
Temperatures in Mankato for today are forecast to be in the mid-30s, by far the coldest weather the Blazers will see this season. So far, the Blazers have played in just one game where the temperature fell below 60 degrees just once. That came two weeks ago in the second round of the playoffs against West Alabama, when the temperature was 59 in Valdosta.
“I’ve played in cold weather before, I think it isn’t going to make a difference,” quarterback Cayden Cochran said. “Midway through the first quarter, you just kind of forget about it.”
Mankato enters today’s game with the nation’s third best defense, allowing just 271.2 yards and 16.1 points per game. Meanwhile, the Blazers enter with the country’s 12th best offense in total yards at 479.8 yards per game. The Blazers also hold the country’s sixth best scoring offense at 42.6 points per game.
“We are going to go in and do what we do best,” Dean said. “We went in and watched film and if we don’t feel like something is going to be successful against them, then we don’t do it. But if it is something that we’ve been doing and we think it is successful, then that will be a part of the game plan.”
One thing the Mavericks have been able to do defensively this season is force turnovers. Through their first 13 games this season, Mankato is plus-20 in the turnover margin, forcing 22 interceptions and recovering 14 fumbles. The plus-20 turnover margin is second best in the nation.
Along with forcing turnovers, Mankato has been able to limit opponents’ rushing production this season. The Mavericks are allowing just 83.7 rushing yards per game and have allowed just one 100-yard rusher this whole season — Wayne State’s C. Davidson rushed for 146 yards in a 30-20 loss to Mankato in October.
Meanwhile, Valdosta State has lived on the run this season, averaging a school-record 219.8 rushing yards a game and producing its first 1,000-yard rusher since 2007.
“We feel like we have to be able to run the football,” Dean said. “It is difficult to run against them because they do a lot of twisting; they do a lot of blitzing and they are very gap-sound. Our offensive line has to have a great football game. So, we are going to take the same approach we take every week. We are going to try and establish the run, and mix in the throws.”
One thing the Blazers hope they can exploit in today’s game is Mankato’s lack of speed. With the south being known for its speed and athleticism, the Blazers hope that will show on the field in today’s game, allowing them to get outside for big yardage.
“We are going to try and run by them a bit,” Dean said. “We feel like we have some speed out wide and hopefully we can run by them. … We want to force them to play sideline-to-sideline. If we can do that, I think we have a chance of being successful.”
Offensively, Mankato is a power run team averaging 402.6 yards per game, including 235.3 yards rushing. The Blazers have been able to slow down various rushing attacks this season, including in the second half, where they are outscoring opponents 64-6 this postseason.
“Fortunately for us, the only thing is we are not playing an option team,” Dean said. “They are more power. They are going to lineup in flat back and come at you. They force you to be very disciplined and very good in the gaps. But they have a big offensive line and they are going to try to come out and knock us off the line.”
The winner of today’s game will face either Winston-Salem State or West Texas A&M in the national championship game next weekend in Florence, Ala.
Notes: Today’s game is Valdosta State’s first road game since Oct. 25 when the Blazers beat Shorter 37-6. … Today will mark just the second time this season the Blazers have played on natural grass. VSU won its only game on natural turf 42-7 at West Georgia. … Instant replay will be used in today’s game. Every scoring play and turnover will automatically be reviewed by a replay official. … Receiver Gerald Ford needs just 58 more yards to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark. No VSU receivers have eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving since Cedric Jones in 2007. … Quarterback Cayden Cochran needs just three more touchdowns this season to move into a tie for 10th for touchdown passes in a single season at VSU. … Freshman running back Austin Scott needs 166 yards rushing to become the team’s second 1,000-yard rusher this season.
Valdosta State Blazers (10-2) at Minnesota State-Mankato Mavericks (13-0)
What: NCAA Division II semifinals
When: today at 3 p.m. Eastern, 2 p.m. Central
Where: Mankato, Minn.
Radio: Blazer Radio Network, including 92.1 FM, 92.9 FM and 1150 AM