VALDOSTA -- What's the difference between the No. 2 team in the nation, and the No. 19 team?
Not a darn thing.
National No. 19 Valdosta and No. 2 Lincoln tied 29-29 Friday night at Cleveland Field.
"Both teams played an excellent ballgame," Valdosta head coach Mike O'Brien said. "I am just so proud of how hard our kids played. They all played their hearts out.
"Give our kids credit for how well they played, and give Lincoln credit for how they came back in the fourth quarter."
The game was ruled a tie and did not go into overtime because it was a non-region game. The teams are also from two different states, which use two very different formats for overtime.
On the surface, a tie against a team like Lincoln seems like an accomplishment to be proud of. For Valdosta on this night it was, and it should have been. But it was also a painful tie.
Valdosta led most of the game, but Lincoln staged a furious rally in the final five minutes, scoring 16 points to earn the tie.
The Wildcats had a 29-13 lead with less than five minutes to play. Then Lincoln staged an 11-play, 79-yard drive, which culminated with a nine-yard pass from Lincoln quarterback Joe Bauserman to tailback Terry Arnold.
Needing to go for two, Bauserman's slant pass to Ryan Gilliam fell incomplete. Except that the official standing on the end line, directly behind the play and shielded by the safety's back, threw a flag for pass interference. Given a second chance, Lincoln fullback Ryan Goffigan slipped over the goal on a dive to get the Trojans within 29-21.
Lincoln's onside kick hit a Trojan player before going 10 yards, giving the Wildcats the ball on the LHS 48 with 3:04 to play. But Lincoln's defense stepped up, and with 2:08 to play, forced Valdosta to punt.
On the punt, 10 Lincoln players rushed VHS punter Andy Dressel. One, Joe Manning, blocked the kick. The ball hit the ground and bounced straight into Manning's hands. Manning raced 41 yards untouched into the end zone for the touchdown, making it 29-27.
Lincoln went for two, and on the play, Valdosta blitzed its front seven. Bauserman lofted a pass just over the oncoming defense, and into the hands of tight end Ryan Huff for the tie.
At that point, O'Brien made a tough decision. With 1:54 to play, maybe enough time to drive for the winning score, and certainly enough time for Lincoln to stop them and get the ball back, O'Brien opted to run out the clock and settle for the tie.
"I take full responsibility for that decision," O'Brien said. "We've got the ball at our own 20, we haven't shown big-play capability. And they've got three guys sitting in their secondary who, if we fumble or they intercept it, they (could) take it back the whole way.
"I felt our kids played hard enough that they did not decide to lose. We weren't able to win, but I sure didn't want to lose."
The tie overshadowed what had been an excellent performance by Valdosta.
"I can't tell you how proud I am of our team," O'Brien said. "They came out and executed our game plan well, and they did a heck of a job tonight."
Valdosta came out looking like one of the nation's best teams. The Wildcats piled up 188 yards of total offense and 12 first downs in the first half, en route to grabbing a 16-0 halftime lead. The Valdosta offense wore down the Lincoln defense with long, time-consuming drives.
The Wildcat defense held Lincoln to 48 yards of total offense in the first half, including -21 yards rushing.
Valdosta took the opening kickoff, and moved 76 yards down the field.
When the drive stalled at the four, Brent Allen split the uprights for a 3-0 Valdosta lead.
Early in the second quarter, Valdosta drove 88 yards for its first touchdown. Quarterback Cedric Hatten completed passes to Eric Williams for 13 yards, Tavaris Motes for 14, and Emmanuel Williams for 12, and drew a 15-yard facemask penalty on Lincoln, moving the ball to the Lincoln 28. Then Hatten kept around right end, and went for 17 yards to the 11. Four plays later, Hatten dove over the top for a one-yar
d touchdown. Brent Allen's extra point was blocked, and it was 9-0 Wildcats.
On Lincoln's ensuing possession, Eric Williams dove in front of a receiver, and picked off Bauserman at the LHS 33. Valdosta moved the ball inside the 10, and on the seventh play of the drive, Corey James powered through for a touchdown, giving the Wildcats a 16-0 lead at halftime.
Lincoln wouldn't remain scoreless for long, though. All-American Antonio Cromartie returned the opening kickoff of the second half 90 yards for a touchdown, cutting the lead to 16-6.
Later in the third, Lincoln was forced to punt, after receivers dropped passes on consecutive plays. Brent Moody's punt was caught by Dewayne Williams at the 35, as four Lincoln players converged on him. Williams turned upfield, found a hole, and took off running. He quickly got into the open field, and was off to the races, 65 yards for a touchdown, making it 23-6.
Lincoln came back, though, with its first long drive. The Trojans began throwing quick slants to their receivers, and the ploy moved them down the field. The drive culminated when Arnold scored on a reverse from four yards out, making it 23-13.
Early in the fourth quarter, Valdosta drove again, this time 83 yards in nine plays. The drive was prolonged twice by key third down plays. The first one came when Emmanuel Williams leaped over a defensive back to haul in a 28-yard pass from Hatten at the VHS 45. The second one came six plays later, when James took a pitch, then stopped and heaved a halfback pass downfield. The pass fell incomplete, but Cromartie was called for pass interference, and the Wildcats got the ball on the Lincoln 24.
On the next play, Valdosta ran a halfback draw from the shotgun with Willie Cowart. Cowart broke through the line and into the open, then broke a couple of tackles and ran across the goal line for the touchdown, making it 29-13.
Then Allen's extra point attempt hit the left upright. That missed point would prove to be oh-so-huge.
Then Lincoln, like the great team they are, staged their comeback, and the teams left the field deadlocked.
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