Special to the Times
Livingston, Ala. —
West Alabama used a massive second half and roared past top-ranked Valdosta State on Thursday night.
The Tigers scored on all three of their third-quarter possessions and added two more scores in the fourth quarter to secure a 49-30 victory.
“They did a good job against us, especially in the second half,” Valdosta State head coach David Dean said. “They made some great throws and made some great plays. That was the difference.”
Both teams entered the night with perfect records in Gulf South Conference play, but it was West Alabama (5-1, 3-0) that left the stadium in prime position to win a second straight conference title, while the Blazers (4-1, 2-1) are on the outside looking in.
“Our team is a fighter and we will fight,” back Cedric O’Neal said. “We down now and I think we will come back again against West Georgia next week.”
Valdosta State held a slim 16-14 lead following a competitive first half, but West Alabama came out as the better team in the third quarter.
The Tigers needed just 19 plays to rack up 248 yards of total offense and account for three touchdowns, including a 91-yard touchdown pass, in the third quarter.
The offensive production in the quarter more than doubled the Tigers’ offensive total from the first half.
West Alabama entered the night with the nation’s second most productive offense, averaging 571.2 yards per game and over 49 points per game.
On Thursday night, despite the slow first half, the Tigers showed just how prolific their offense is this season. They finished the night with 558 yards of total offense against a Valdosta State defense that entered the night allowing just 304.8 yards a game.
The loss for Valdosta State ended a 14-game winning streak, the second longest streak in the nation — at any level — trailing only Ohio State University. The Blazers' last loss came on Sept. 22 of last season, also coming to West Alabama.
The 12-point win in Valdosta propelled the Tigers to their first GSC championship. But, the Blazers didn’t lose again and secured the top seed in the region and eventually won the national championship.
That thought was on the Blazers’ minds following Thursday night’s loss.
“We love winning,” quarterback Cayden Cochran said. “That is why we come to school here. We will just start another (winning streak) next week."
“It’s like I told our guys in there, this was (West Alabama's) fourth straight Thursday game. We had a short week and had to travel,” Dean said. “They played their butts off. We played hard and we played good football. I told them I was proud of them.”
Kedrick Rhodes and Kyle Caldwell were the obvious playmakers for West Alabama on Thursday night.
After Willie Downs, who left the game with an injury in the second quarter, returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a Valdosta State touchdown, Rhodes caught a 23-yard touchdown pass from Gary Johnston to even the score at 7-7 early in the opening quarter.
Valdosta State regained the lead on the Tigers’ following offensive possession when D’Amonte Ridley blocked a West Alabama punt. The kick bounced out the back of the end zone for a VSU safety and a 9-7 lead.
But, West Alabama took its first lead of the game when Rhodes capped off an 85-yard drive for the Tigers with an 8-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter.
Valdosta State took the lead two possessions later when quarterback Cayden Cochran hit Tyre Waiters on a 16-yard touchdown pass with 2:44 to play in the first half.
The Blazers kept their 16-14 lead at the half, until West Alabama drove 75 yards on its first drive of the second half to take a 21-16 lead.
A 46-yard pass from Caldwell to Chad Toocheck aided the Tigers’ drive. On the play, the Caldwell avoided VSU defenders in the backfield, scrambling to his right before connecting with Toocheck.
The play reminded Dean of a famous, Heisman Trophy winning quarterback at Texas A&M.
“He is like Johnny Manziel back there," Dean said. "The guy can just make things happen. He did a great job.”
The following play, Rhodes scored his third touchdown the night, coming on a 16-yard run.
West Alabama added a score on its following drive. Despite starting inside its own 10, UWA needed just three plays to build its largest lead of the game.
On third down, Caldwell connected with Malik Lofton across the middle for a 91-yard touchdown, making the score 28-16.
With the momentum of the game in limbo, the Blazers responded. But it didn’t last long.
Starting their drive inside West Alabama territory, the Blazers capped off a 7-play, 45-yard drive with a 29-yard touchdown pass from Cochran to Seantavius Jones, which brought the score to 28-23.
West Alabama recovered again, responding to Valdosta State’s response. The Tigers scored on two of their next three possessions to build a mammoth 42-23.
Caldwell connected with Seth Roberts on a 19-yard touchdown before connecting with Toocheck on a 10-yard score early in the fourth quarter, which was set up when Valdosta State failed to convert a fake punt inside its own 25-yard line.
Valdosta State scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter when Cochran scrambled 15 yards to cap off a 90-yard drive for the Blazers.
UWA added another touchdown to make the score 49-30. The Blazers, playing against a prevent defense, moved down the field but were intercepted in the end zone.
Caldwell finished the game 9 of 18 for 252 with three touchdowns, while Rhodes led West Alabama with 157 yards rushing with three scores.
Cedric O’Neal recorded his eighth-career 100-yard rushing performance for Valdosta State. The sophomore finished with a team-high 108 yards rushing, moving him into seventh on the school’s all-time rushing list in only 18 career games.