The Valdosta Daily Times
It may only be September, but today’s Gulf South Conference opener between the No. 16 Valdosta State Blazers and the No. 23 West Alabama Tigers is much more than a regular season game.
Picked to finish 1-2 in the conference this season, today’s game between the Blazers and Tigers may decide the conference championship at seasons end.
The game is also a rematch of last year’s thriller at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium, which saw the Blazers use a pair of Matt Pierce interception returns for touchdowns to escape with a narrow 22-21 win. Since the VSU victory, the talk around Livingston, Ala. — the home of West Alabama —has been about how the Tigers let a win slip away and how the Blazers didn’t deserve to win.
When speaking with the Valdosta Daily Times earlier this week, West Alabama head coach Will Hall said a win over the Blazers would put his team in a position to become an elite team in the conference and at the Division II level.
“There is no doubt, a win would make their season,” Valdosta State head coach David Dean said. “They feel like they let us off the hook last year...I know they put a lot of eggs into the basket. This is going to be their season.”
Both teams have plenty of firepower and Player of the Year candidates. West Alabama is led by running back Matt Willis, who leads the conference in rushing yards per game, while Valdosta State has its own playmaker in wide receiver Gerald Ford, who leads the conference with 17 catches and five touchdown receptions.
Last year, Willis rushed for 219 yards with a touchdown in the 22-21 loss to Valdosta State. The Blazers know what to expect today and are looking to make the Tigers one-dimensional by limiting Willis’ production on the ground.
“It will be very important if we can stop the run and force them to pass,” senior linebacker Ryan Smith said. “I feel like we will have the advantage then.”
Stopping Willis in person is much harder than saying it. Very few teams have been able to slow down the Harlon Hill Trophy candidate, which is awarded to the nation’s top player on the Division II level.
Willis is just 181 yards away from becoming West Alabama’s all-time leading rusher.
“We have to get a lot of players to the ball,” Dean said when asked how to slow down Willis.
“(West Alabama) did a great job of hemming us (last year), and we didn’t do a good enough job of tackling (Willis) last year. We have to make sure to hang on to him. He is not an easy guy to tackle.”
If the Tigers are forced to throw the ball, the Blazers could be in store for a big night. Through the first three games of the year, the Blazers forced eight interceptions, all of which came the first two weeks. Tigers’ quarterback Kyle Caldwell has also shown he is interception prone. Through their first three games, Caldwell, a 5-foot-7 sophomore, has thrown four interceptions compared to just three touchdowns.
“I think they are going to go (to the run) real early,” said Pierce, who is familiar to intercepting Caldwell’s passes. “If we can take that away and make then one-dimensional, that can be big.”
Today’s game features the top-ranked defense in the conference in West Alabama. The Tigers give up just 216 yards per game. The Blazers are the top-ranked offense in the conference, averaging 491.3 yards per game, including 227 yards on the ground.
When the Blazers go to the passing game, Ford has become the go-to target for junior quarterback Cayden Cochran, who threw two touchdown passes to Ford in last week’s 43-10 win over Angelo State.
Ford leads the conference in receptions with 17 and five touchdowns and has turned heads throughout the GSC, including at West Alabama
“Gerald is a really good player. We've known about him for some time,” UWA’s Hall said. “He had to sit out last year, but he has been a great player in this conference for a long time. One reason I think he has been able to have a big season is because the quarterback play has been much-improved than the past two years. Cochran is really playing well and (Graham) Craig played well when he got to play. I think that has been the biggest reason for the improvement in their team this year over the last two years, is they are just really better at quarterback.”
Overall, the Blazer offense is looking for a better performance than last year’s game with the Tigers, who held VSU’s offense to just 278 yards onn the day.
“Last year, we didn’t play very well,” said Cochran, who completed 22 of his 32 passes for 144 yards with an interception in the loss.
Today, the Blazers will face the tough challenge in moving the ball against the Tiger defense, which is led by last year’s GSC Defensive Player of the Year Deon Lacey.
In order to prepare for the Tigers’ tough play, the Blazers raised the physicality in practice this week. Linemen were seen slamming into each other at practice throughout practice.
“You have to be physical to play against these guys and I think our guys know that this is going to be a physical football game,” Dean said.
Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium. The game is part of Parents Weekend at Valdosta State University. Follow @Ed_Hooper on Twitter for updates from the game.