It’s an in-state rivalry, a conference game and it has playoff implications. It’s safe to say that today’s football game between the Valdosta State Blazers and the West Georgia Wolves is more than a regular season game on the first weekend in October.
The Blazers and Wolves will collide today at 2 p.m. from University Stadium in Carrollton.
The winner of today’s game will take possession of the Peach State Basket, something the Blazers lost possession of last year when West Georgia scored a game-winning touchdown with five seconds remaining to beat the Blazers 23-20. It was West Georgia’s first win over the Blazers since 2005.
“They got the best of us last year at our place,” Valdosta State head coach David Dean said.
Today’s meeting is much bigger than reclaiming the Peach State Basket for the Blazers. With just six region games this season, a second in-region loss this season could cost the Blazers a playoff spot.
“Our season is at stake,” said Dean, who once served as an assistant at West Georgia. “If we want to make the playoffs, we feel like we have to win out. So we feel like we have to win our last five (games).”
Valdosta State enters today’s game riding a four-game Gulf South Conference losing streak. It’s the longest at VSU since the 1980s.
With the majority of both team’s rosters being from the state of Georgia, many of the players in today’s game once competed with or against one another in high school football. Many were also recruited by both VSU and West Georgia.
“I haven’t really looked at their roster, but I know a lot of people that always say “such and such was on their team” or they played against someone in high school,” VSU linebacker Chris Pope said. “And a lot of people (at VSU) were recruited by West Georgia. There is a lot at stake.”
Added Dean: “A lot of the guys here were recruited by West Georgia. A lot of the guys there were recruited by us. Everybody knows everybody. That all plays into it. You always want to win your in-state game, but this one is a little bit different.”
In recent years, West Georgia has gone from a lackluster program to a competitive program that is able to compete against the best Division II teams. The key in the turnaround has been upgrading and building new facilities, which in return help bring in more recruits.
“(Their program) has come a far way, and it mostly has to do with that stadium,” Dean said. “Quite honestly, it is a heck of a recruiting tool. We have had kids that come here and that have gone on a recruiting visit to West Georgia and say that when they go on the recruiting visit they never leave the stadium. They do everything there.
“They are really pushing that and I don’t blame them. Quite honestly, it has hurt us. We lost two (recruits) last year. It is a beautiful place. We are jealous of it. They did a great job. The press box area is nice, the stands are nice, the surrounding area is nice. They did a great job.”
With one of the nicest venues in all of Division II football, the Wolves also feature one of the best natural grass playing surfaces. Today’s game will mark the only time the Blazers will play on natural grass this regular season.
“I think it will be neat to switch it up,” Valdosta State captain Cam Short said. “We play a lot on turf, especially since everybody is going to it. So I think grass will be good. It will be a good switch up for us.”
“Hopefully, it won’t (affect) us,” Dean said. “It is a very good turf. We did a lot of work on the grass this week to get ready for it. We will get out there and warm up on it, but knowing how good that turf is, I don’t think it is going to be a problem.”
Today’s game features the top two scoring offenses in the conference. The Blazers are averaging 43 points per game and West Georgia is averaging 37.
Offensively, the Blazers are one of the most balanced teams in the conference. VSU is averaging 233.6 rushing yards per game and leads the conference with 244 passing yards per game. West Georgia is balanced, too, but not as much. The Wolves are dead last in the conference in rushing at 208 yards per game and second in passing with 203.8 yards per game.
“If you can make someone one dimensional, it is a whole lot easier to defend,” Dean said. “But you have to be prepared for both. This year in the Gulf South Conference, it is a little bit different. Everybody is running the ball a whole lot more than they are throwing the ball. (West Georgia) is probably the most balanced team of anybody we have left on our schedule.”
Defensively, West Georgia is prone to giving up a lot of passing yards. The Wolves are allowing 265 yards a game through the air, and will have the tough challenge of trying to slow down the Blazers’ passing attack that will see the return of Gerald Ford, who sat out last week’s game with a knee injury.
Ford leads the GSC in receiving yards per game with 111. He is also the conference’s top scorer.
Who: Valdosta State (3-2) at West Georgia (2-2)
When: 2 p.m. today
Where: University Stadium, Carrollton
Last time: West Georgia won 23-20 in 2011
Series: VSU leads 19-9
Radio: 92.1 FM, 92.9 FM, 1150 AM, 96.1 FM