The Valdosta Daily Times
It’s win or go home for the Valdosta State football team.
After finishing with an 8-2 regular season record, the Blazers will host Gulf South Conference champion — and rival — West Alabama in the second round of the Division II football playoffs today at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium. Kickoff is set for 12 p.m. Eastern.
“It is two teams that have improved and have gotten better through the year,” Valdosta State head coach David Dean said. “I think it is going to be a heck of a football game. It is going to be two good teams going at each other.”
Today’s game marks the second time the Blazers and the Tigers will meet this season. West Alabama beat Valdosta State 39-28 on Sept. 22 in Valdosta.
Since then, the Blazers reeled off six straight wins to finish with an 8-2 record and earned the top-seed in Super Region 2. West Alabama finished with an 8-3 overall record and was just 5-2 in games following the win over Valdosta State.
“Secretly, I think we were kind of pulling for West Alabama (to win last week), because we do have that opportunity to play them again,” Dean said. “We realize it is probably going to be a tougher game, but when you play those guys and they get the better of you earlier in the season, and you have a chance to avenge that loss, a lot has to be said for that.”
Rest will be a major factor for the Blazers, who last played Nov. 1, beating Texas A&M-Kingsville 38-31 in the regular season finale. That game was 23 days ago, giving the Blazers a giant break similar to ones that Division I teams face prior to playing in bowl games.
“Fortunately, our guys have stayed focused,” Dean said. “We didn’t have to do a lot as a coaching staff to keep them focused. They came out here and worked very hard. I’m proud about that; it says a lot about our senior leadership.”
Meanwhile, West Alabama has played three times since VSU’s last time out, going 2-1 in those games. The Tigers lost to Abilene Christian 22-16 before bouncing back and defeating North Alabama 42-27 to claim the outright GSC championship.
Last week, the Tigers dismantled Miles 41-7 in the first round of the playoffs.
In the previous meeting this season, West Alabama rushed for 332 yards to beat the Blazers. The Tigers will be without one key weapon today, though, as Player of the Year candidate Matt Willis suffered a torn ACL Sept. 29 and will miss the remainder of the season.
In the previous two meetings between the Tigers and Blazers, Willis terrorized the VSU for 397 yards, including 178 in the September meeting.
Since Willis went down, the Tigers have re-built their offense around backup quarterback Gary Johnston, who is now the team’s leading rusher with 896 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Along with Johnston, the Tigers have seen the production of freshmen George Rowe and Javae Smith increase. Last week against Miles, Rowe and Smith combined to rush for 156 yards while Rowe scored pair of touchdown. Johnston accounted for 154 yards with three rushing touchdowns in the blow out win last week.
“They like to run that quarterback and it is really like they have (Johnston) in there as a running back that can throw the ball, too,” defensive end Tyler Josey said. “We’ve really tried to key in on a couple of different things.”
The Tigers have also started the throw the ball more this season, since losing Willis. Starting quarterback Kyle Caldwell, who is just 5-foot-7, has thrown for 1,469 yards with 11 touchdowns this season. Caldwell struggled in the game against VSU earlier this season, completing just 4 of 11 passes for 102 yards with a touchdown.
Valdosta State’s spread offensive attack was peaking at the end of the regular season. The Blazers averaged 43 points per game across the final six games of the regular season, as wide receiver Gerald Ford finished the year with 52 receptions for 836 yards with 12 touchdowns and was named the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year.
Like the Sept. 22 meeting, the Blazer offense will face a tough challenge today against the Tiger defense, which ranks fourth in the nation in total defense and first in passing efficiency.
“They’ve improved,” Dean said. “They’ve gotten a lot better offensively and they have gotten better defensively. They have gotten better with their pass rush as the year has gone on.”
A major factor in the Blazer offense this season has been its rushing attack. True freshman Cedric O’Neal was named the conference’s Freshman of the Year after rushing for 811 yards with seven touchdowns this season. While the Blazers are averaging 214.1 yards rushing per game in 2012, they were held to a season-low 133 yards in the meeting against UWA earlier this season.
That lack of production on the ground led to VSU quarterbacks Cayden Cochran (who did not play in the second half with due to a shoulder injury) and Graham Craig to combine to throw for four interceptions in the loss.
“We are all kind of locked in and quiet (this week),” Cochran said. “Nobody is joking around. We know we are done if we lose and we have extra incentives knowing it is West Alabama. We have to move through them to move forward.”
Who: West Alabama (9-3) at Valdosta State (8-2)
When: 12 p.m.
Where: Bazemore-Hyder Stadium
What: Second round of the Division II playoffs
Radio: 92.1 FM, 1150 AM, 96.1 FM, 92.9 FM