The Valdosta Daily Times
West Alabama entered Saturday night’s football game with Valdosta State looking to make a statement.
The Tigers hammered away at the Blazers in the Gulf South Conference opener for both teams to earn a 39-28 win at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium.
The win was just West Alabama’s third-ever victory over Valdosta State in the 31 years the teams have met. It was also the Tigers’ first-ever win in Valdosta.
“We have now beaten Valdosta State two out of three times,” West Alabama head coach Will Hall said. “This is TitleTown, USA. I have so much respect for Coach (David) Dean and his program. They do a phenomenal job and they play the right way. They are class. This is a big win for us, and what we are trying to do.”
West Alabama racked up 443 yards of total offense (332 on the ground), and took advantage of several key Blazer mistakes to hand the Blazers their fourth conference loss in the last two years.
“There is not a whole lot to say, basically I told (our team) that we got outplayed tonight,” Valdosta State head coach David Dean said. “I told them West Alabama wanted it a little bit more.”
Led by dominating rushing performances by senior running back Matt Willis (178 yards on 27 carries) and backup quarterback Gary Johnston (120 yards on 13 carries), the Tigers withstood an early third quarter surge by the Blazers, which saw them retake the lead, and scored 16 unanswered points to secure the conference win.
“We killed ourselves, we shot ourselves in the foot,” wide receiver Gerald Ford said. “There is nobody to blame but ourselves.”
Penalties doomed VSU all night. The Blazers were flagged 13 times for 124 yards, several of which were holding penalties that brought back potential first downs and game changing plays. Coming into the game, the Blazers had been penalized just 18 times for 159 yards.
“I told them that whoever made the most mistakes tonight is not going to come out the winner of this game, and we obviously made many more mistakes than they did,” Dean said. “That ended up being the difference.”
“It is very frustrating, because it cost us,” Dean continued. “We had some big plays that were called back on holding penalties. It just seemed like every time we got some momentum, one of those little yellow flags came out.”
Valdosta State also struggled offensively. The Blazers finished the game with 383 yards (133 rushing), and penalties ended several drives. Despite the loss, wide receiver Gerald Ford kept his form by catching two touchdown passes to bring his season total to seven. The junior finished the game with 8 receptions for a career-high 115 yards — his third straight 100-yard receiving performance.
“I just go out there and try to get (my teammates) to see from a more serious standpoint,” Ford said. “This is football, it is fun, but this is serious. I stick my neck out there for any one of those guys in the locker room, and I want them to know that I am here for them — no matter what.”
Both Cayden Cochran and Graham Craig played at quarterback for VSU. Cochran started the game and completed 7 of 19 passes for 93 yards, with an opening drive touchdown pass to Ford. Craig replaced him in the second half after Cochran took a hit on his tender shoulder in the first half. According to Dean, the change at quarterback was not performance based.
After West Alabama scored 20 straight points to close out the first half and grab a 20-7 halftime lead, Craig led the Blazers down the field for an opening second half touchdown that cut the deficit to 20-14. The Blazers regained the lead with a defensive touchdown on the following Tiger possession when Tyler Josey recovered a fumble in the end zone.
West Alabama quickly regained the momentum with three straight scoring drives to grab a 36-21 lead and essentially suck nearly all of the life out of the Blazers and their crowd.
“Well I think, when we had them pinned on the 10-yard line, they had a second down and 19, we let the quarterback break loose for a 40- or 50-yard run,” Dean said. “If we could have stopped them right there — we had just gone up 21-20 — and when he broke that run, the momentum changed.”
The Tigers used a commanding 10-play, 81-yard drive to take a 27-21 lead. After a VSU punt, the Tigers connected on their third field goal of the night, which was followed up by an 8-play, 67-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter to make the score 36-21.
Trailing by 15, the Blazers did their best to make it a game. Craig drove the Blazers 73 yards down the field in 12 plays in just under three minutes, connecting with Quin Roberson on a 5-yard touchdown pass that made the score 36-28.
After a Tiger punt, the Blazers started to move down the field, but the comeback effort was cut short when Craig was intercepted by Otha Foster (who had three interceptions on the night), which led to a West Alabama field goal that made the score 39-28.
“It is very frustrating,” VSU linebacker Chris Pope said. “We came out and played hard, and we gave it our all. At the end of the day, it just seems like they were the better team on the night.”
Valdosta State scored on its opening possession, going 75 yards in 12 plays for the score. Cochran connected with Ford on a 4-yard touchdown pass to take a 7-0 lead. The drive nearly didn’t happen after Matt Pierce fumbled the opening kickoff. The Tigers were called for an offside penalty and had to re-kick the ball.
After the teams swapped punts, West Alabama took over the first half by scoring on four of its last five first half possessions to grab a 20-7 halftime lead.
Malik Lofton broke loose for a 13-yard touchdown run to cap off a six-play, 66-yard drive. Then the Tigers connected on back-to-back field goals to extend their lead to 13-7.
West Alabama quarterback Kyle Caldwell connected with tight end Stacey Graham on a 34-yard wheel pass for the score to cap the first half scoring.
During the Tigers’ scoring stretch, the Blazers’ offensive possessions were filled with giant miscues. After driving into the red zone on their fourth possession, a bad snap sailed over the head of Cochran for a 19-yard loss. After two plays, the Blazers settled for a field goal attempt that was blocked.
After West Alabama’s first field goal, Cedric O’Neal coughed up the ball on the Blazers’ following possession, and West Alabama recovered at midfield. The Tigers ended the drive with a field goal.
Cochran was intercepted on VSU’s last drive of the first half. West Alabama took a knee to end the half. The interception was Cochran’s first of the season.
Notes: Former Lowndes and Florida State standout Greg Reid, who joined the Blazers this preseason, then tore his ACL, was in attendance at Saturday’s game wearing a VSU uniform on the sideline. …. Tyler Josey’s fumble recovery for a touchdown was VSU’s first in 58 games. … VSU wide receiver Griffin Roelle did not dress for Saturday’s game due to a nagging hamstring injury. … The announced attendance Saturday night was 5,738.