The Valdosta Daily Times
FLORENCE, Ala. —
The Valdosta State football team went from looking unstoppable in the first half to nearly being lethargic in the second half Saturday night.
After building a 24-0 lead early in the third quarter, the Blazers withstood a thunderous 21-point comeback by rival North Alabama to narrowly escape with a 24-21 win over the Lions at Braly Stadium in Florence, Ala.
“I think we got a little complacent,” Valdosta State head coach David Dean said. “I think when we scored quickly there and went up 24-0, I think everybody thought (North Alabama was) going to fold. They have a lot of pride in their program, and they are not going to fold. I give them a lot of credit to fight back and give them an opportunity to win the ball game.”
Following North Alabama’s touchdown to cut the Blazers’ lead to three with 3:56 remaining, the Blazers used the legs of freshman running back Cedric O’Neal to pick up three first downs to ice the game and secure the Gulf South Conference win.
“I can’t say enough about our offensive line and Cedric at the end of the football game,” Dean said. “With three minutes to go in the ball game, we took over on the 25-yard line and ran the clock out. They couldn’t stop us. All we were doing was running the zone play. They had to know it was coming.”
North Alabama’s comeback was aided by a surprisingly successful passing game, something the Blazers weren’t prepared for. North Alabama, which entered Saturday night’s game dead last in the conference in passing yards per game (102), managed 162 yards passing on the Blazer defense in the second half to move up and down the field in the comeback bid.
Lions quarterback Luke Wingo was able to find receivers across the middle, in the flats and deep to move the Lions down the field in the second half, connecting on a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. The passing also set up Wingo’s 8-yard rushing touchdown with 3:56 to play, which made the score 24-21.
“That is what happened in the second half. They came out and the running wasn’t working,” said linebacker Chris Pope, who led the Blazers with 11 tackles Saturday night. “They came out with something different. They had a little bit of success and they did what they did to get back in the game.”
Dean said the Lions had no other option but to pass, and the Blazers should have been prepared.
“They had to (pass). When they went down 24-0, that was the only way to get back into the ball game,” he said. “They were forced to throw, and we have to understand that.”
The Blazer offense didn’t help much in the second half, either. After quarterback Cayden Cochran connected on a 71-yard touchdown strike to receiver Seantavious Jones on just the second play of the third quarter, the Blazer offense lost possession on downs and punted four times across its next five possessions, before running the clock out at the end of the game.
“(North Alabama) doesn’t throw for that much yardage if, offensively, we produce,” Dean said. “We had too many drops on third downs, we had some missed blocking opportunities, we slipped running the ball a few times. If we don’t do all that, it is not even a close football game.”
The Blazers opened the scoring on just the second offensive play from scrimmage, when Cochran found receiver Gerald Ford on an 81-yard touchdown pass to take a 7-0 lead just over three minutes into the game.
Two drives later, Valdosta State pushed its lead to 10-0 behind a career-long 51-yard field goal by Daniel Andersen.
In the second quarter, the Blazers extended their lead to 17-0 behind a 1-yard quarterback keeper by Cochran. The touchdown capped off a 9-play, 65-yard scoring drive that was aided by Austin Scott’s six carries for 50 yards. Scott finished the game with 97 yards rushing, before leaving the game with an ankle injury.
After Cochran connected with Jones to begin the second half, the Lions mounted their comeback, giving a scare to the Blazers.
The Lions started their comeback two drives into the second half with a 7-yard touchdown run by freshman running back Lamonte Thompson after stopping the Blazers on a fourth down attempt.
After both teams punted on their next two possessions, the Lions closed their deficit to 24-14 behind Wingo’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Jason Smith.
After another Blazer punt and several offensive miscues, the Lions used a 9-play, 80-yard drive to cut Valdosta State’s lead to 24-21 off Wingo’s rushing touchdown.
Cedric O’Neal finished with 123 yards on the ground. Quarterback Cayden Cochran finished 16 of 28 for 236 yards with his two touchdowns. He was also sacked four times, which contributed to the offensive woes.
Ford hauled in six passes for 134 yards and a touchdown.
Valdosta State improved to 5-2 with the win. More importantly, the Blazers remained in the hunt for a Division II playoff berth. The Blazers host rival Delta State next Saturday for Homecoming.
Notes: Valdosta State left guard Cam Short recorded his first career reception Saturday night when he caught a tipped pass. He was tackled for a 1-yard loss. … With the win, the Blazers are now 15-20-1 all-time against the Lions and 4-5 under Dean. … Ford’s 81-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter was a career long. He leads the conference in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns this season.