The Valdosta Daily Times
The Valdosta State football team overcame a sluggish start and dug itself out of an early two-touchdown deficit to avenge an early season loss and blow out conference rival West Alabama 49-21 Saturday afternoon in the second round of the Division II playoffs.
“Oh boy, what do I say?” Valdosta State head coach David Dean said. “What a heck of a job by our kids. I was concerned coming into this game. I didn’t tell these guys that, but I was. Having 23 days off between games, I didn’t know how we would be. And I think it kind of told early; we were a little rusty. But we knocked that off and I can’t say enough about how proud I am of each and every one of these kids.”
Valdosta State will likely host Carson-Newman in the national quarterfinals next Saturday at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium, although the NCAA will make a final decision on the location of the game today. Valdosta State, the higher-seeded team, could lose the opportunity to host the game because of a low attendance (1,984) on Saturday.
Less than seven minutes into the game, Valdosta State found itself in a 14-0 deficit behind a pair of early rushing touchdowns by West Alabama quarterback Gary Johnston. But then, the Blazers shook off their 23-day break in game action and dominated the Tigers, scoring seven touchdowns across their final 12 offensive possessions while playing dominating defense to secure VSU’s first playoff victory since 2008.
West Alabama used a strong opening kickoff return to the Blazer 30-yard line to set up its first touchdown, a 4-yard run by Johnston. Then following a VSU fumble, the Tigers used a four-play, 11-yard drive capped off by Johnston’s 1-yard score to grab a 14-0 lead.
Then, the Blazers took over and held the Tigers to just one more scoring drive, eight punts and one fumble across their final 13 drives in the football game.
“If it could go wrong at the beginning of the game, it did,” Dean said. “But our kids stayed focused, stayed on task and they finished off the game. They played a heck of a football a game. One thing I will say is that we beat a really good football team today and I’m glad we don’t have to play them again.”
While the Blazer offense found its rhythm in the second half — scoring on five of its nine possessions — so did the Blazers defense, which took to form like the Black Swarm defenses from years past.
Led by a dominating performance from defensive tackle Lawrence Virgil (7 tackles, 3 sacks, 5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble), the Blazers limited the Tigers to just 187 yards of total offense, including 69 yards rushing on the day.
In the Sept. 22 meeting between the two teams, which the Tigers won 39-28, West Alabama racked up 349 yards on the ground.
“The defensive line, we just needed to get into the backfield to win the game and stop the run,” Virgil said. “We talked about the need to bring down (Johnston).”
Offensively, freshmen running backs Austin Scott and Cedric O’Neal each rushed for three touchdowns, while Scott ran for a game-high 133 yards to lead the Blazers to 458 yards of total offense on the day. Quarterback Cayden Cochran finished the day 23 of 33 for 240 yards with a second quarter touchdown pass to Seantavious Jones.
“We read the line,” Scott said. “The line did the job. They made my job easy. The holes were just there. The line has the hardest job on the field.”
Valdosta State got onto the scoreboard early in the second quarter when Scott broke free for a 13-yard touchdown, making the score 14-6. Following a UWA punt, Cochran connected with Jones for a 15-yard score, cutting the deficit to 14-12.
The Blazers missed both extra point attempts as starter Daniel Andersen did not play due to an injury he suffered on Wednesday night in a non-football related activity.
West Alabama re-extended its lead to eight points (20-12) on its final drive of the first half when Johnston connected with Dakota Daniel for a 21-yard touchdown.
That was all the Tigers would get for the remainder of the day.
Valdosta State started its second half scoring midway through the third quarter when Scott capped off a 10-play, 87-yard drive with a 4-yard touchdown run. Dean and the Blazers then opted to go for the two-point conversion — their first attempt of the season — which saw Cochran connect with Regginald Lewis to make the score 21-20.
On the ensuing offensive play for West Alabama, Virgil forced a fumble that was recovered by Ryan Smith. One-play later, O’Neal scored from 10 yards out and Cochran found Lewis again for the two-point conversion. Just like that, the Blazers led 28-21.
“I thought when we fumbled that is really when (momentum) shifted,” West Alabama head coach Will Hall said. “I thought the fumble and the score and then they got the two-point, I thought that whole series of events was where it shifted. We never bounced back from that.”
With the defense continuing to dominate, the Blazer offense continued to pour it on. O’Neal scored rushing downs of 9 and 2 yards while Scott added a 15-yard TD score to cap off VSU’s scoring in the game.
“Our coaching staff does a great job of implementing our running game,” Cochran said. “With our pass game opening up and those linebackers being outside, (Scott and O’Neal) had places to run and had room to go do things to do things that they are brought here to do.”
During the early minutes of the game, both teams were penalized for personal foul, unsportsmanlike conduct penalties for various late hits and punches. After the first quarter, both teams settled down and the Blazers took over.
“I’m a little embarrassed with how we played early; the way that we talked and the way they talked, that is not the way college football is supposed to be played,” Dean said. “I think both heads calmed down. There was a lot of animosity between the teams going into it. But I think a lot of it, from our end, was the long lay-off we had.”