The Valdosta Daily Times
There is no love lost between the football teams at Valdosta State and North Alabama. With 30 years of history between them, the two schools have naturally become rivals.
Tonight, the rivarly gets renewed when they meet in a pivotal Gulf South Conference matchup at Braly Municipal Stadium in Florence, Ala. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. Eastern.
The Blazers enter with a 4-2 record and winners of their last two games, including a 42-7 win over West Georgia last week. North Alabama is 5-1 on the year and has won four straight games since being blown out by Harding the second week of this season.
With over 40 freshman on the roster, North Alabama head coach Bobby Wallace, who came out of retirement to coach the Lions this season, has managed to position the Lions in first place in the GSC standings.
“There is definitely more team concept,” Valdosta State head coach David Dean said. “There are very few individuals. Last year, and years before that, when they would make great plays, it was all about (one guy). Now when they make a great play, the group comes together to congratulate a guy.”
After years of being a passing team, North Alabama is a primarily running based team this season. The Lions are first in the conference in rushing with 255.6 yards per game. They are dead last in the conference in passing, averaging just 102 yards through the air per game.
After being scorched for 332 yards rushing in a loss to West Alabama last month, the Blazer defense has been able to adapt to the option-style offense and has been able to stop the run. Tonight will be another challenge for the Blazers.
“(North Alabama) runs basically the same stuff we’ve seen the last few weeks, so I think it has been good practice,” defensive end Tyler Josey said. “They have some young offensive lineman, but you can tell they have gotten better every game. It is going to be a good challenge and of course, it is North Alabama-Valdosta State. It is going to be a big game. It is a rivalry.”
Defensively, the Lions are giving up 338.6 yards per game, but are only allowing just 14 points per game.
The key for the Lions’ defense is red zone efficiency. The Lions have allowed just five red zone touchdowns in 19 attempts this season.
They are also forcing a lot of turnovers in the red zone, including two last week in a win over Texas A&M-Kingsville.
For the Blazers, offensive efficiency and taking care of the football is key tonight.
“We feel like we can move the ball,” wide receiver Quin Roberson said. “The consistency of the offense, running the ball well, blocking out front, and holding on the ball (is the key).”
The Blazers are the top-ranked offense in the conference this season behind a balanced attack that averages 233.6 yards rushing and a league-leading 244 yards passing per game.
Freshman running backs Austin Scott and Cedric O’Neal, who will play today despite leaving last week’s game with a shoulder injury, are second and third in the conference in rushing. Both backs are averaging over 80 yards per game.
“The success of our football team this year has been being able to run the football,” Dean said. “People can’t sit back on our pass game and with us being more balanced, we are able to do a lot more things offensively. The key in this ball game is going to be, can we run the football?
“If we can run the football, it is going to bring those safeties into play. If they are much more conscious of the run game and the linebackers are much more conscious of the run game, it is going to be open stuff out wide.”
In the passing game, receiver Gerald Ford leads the conference in receiving with 25 catches for 446 yards with seven touchdowns.
The Blazers and Lions have met 35 times in series history, with UNA holding a 20-14-1 advantage. More specifically, the two teams have met seven times since Dean took over the Blazer program in 2007. North Alabama has won five of those meetings, including five of the last six.
The Lions eliminated the Blazers in the 2008 and 2010 playoffs and took the final playoff spot from the Blazers with a 30-23 win on the final day of the regular season last year.
The Blazers haven’t forgotten the losses.
“I talked about it on Sunday,” Dean said. “I said ‘the last two times we’ve been in the playoffs, North Alabama has knocked us out. Last year, we were sitting in a position where if we win that, we go (to the playoffs) and they beat us. So technically, three of the last five years, they have beaten us for a playoff spot, and we don’t want to let that happen again.’”