VALDOSTA –– What began as a fireworks display degenerated into a game too close for comfort for the Valdosta Wildcats.
The ‘Cats (3-0) scored 37 of their 54 points in the first quarter, but failed to build much on the lead for the majority of the night as they defeated Columbia (1-2) 54-34 on Friday night.
Valdosta head Coach Alan Rodemaker didn’t mince words when asked about Friday’s win.
“A sloppy mess,” Rodemaker called the game.
Rodemaker continued, “We shocked them early and got a lot of easy scores, but they’re not that bad of a football team. You saw that in the second half –– they executed and did a lot of things well. When it came down to it, it was a lot more of an even game than it was in the first quarter.
“It was a strange game. We put our young guys in starting in the second quarter and they just didn’t perform. We went three-and-out on offense a bunch and then we had some decent plays on defense, but we didn’t play well on defense. It made us put our starters back in late in the game just to finish the game. It was a sloppy game, there’s a lot to coach off of this game. Our kids need to look at themselves in the mirror and we need to come to practice hard on Monday. I thought it was just a sloppy win in the end.”
‘Cats senior quarterback Tate Rodemaker completed 13-of-17 passes for 205 yards and four touchdowns –– three coming in the first quarter, punctuated by two connections with senior receiver Santavious Gatlin. Rodemaker and the ‘Cats offense dazzled in the first quarter, scoring on each of their first four possessions while Javonte Sherman broke a 60-yard punt return for a touchdown in the quarter for good measure.
After leading 37-6 after the first quarter, the ‘Cats elected to get some burn for its reserve units in the second quarter. Valdosta struggled mightily to maintain the same level the starters brought, allowing a pair of long touchdown throws from Eagles quarterback Octavious Griffin. Griffin’s touchdowns were 71 and 51 yards respectively as the Eagles began to find their bearings.
Despite the two Columbia scores, the ‘Cats led 44-20 at the half following a two-yard touchdown run by Shavious Wright with 4:40 left before intermission.
“Once we got the lead, I think we had too many scoreboard watchers and we didn’t play well,” Rodemaker said. “Our second unit struggled to cover a couple touchdowns. We gave up a touchdown with our first unit first play of the game. We didn’t get first downs consistently with our first unit. Our inconsistency in being able to run the football cost us tonight because we could’ve run this thing out if we run the football. When we had to throw it, that was a problem all night. I’m disappointed with the effort in a lot of ways. I know we’ve got a lot to coach, but a win’s a win and we’re going on to next week.”
After seeing the starting offense stall midway through the third and having to settle for a field goal, the ‘Cats found another spark as Rodemaker found Sherman for a touchdown to open up a 54-20 lead with 43.6 seconds left in the third quarter.
Griffin tossed two more touchdowns in the fourth that narrowed the lead, but the Eagles never truly threatened down the stretch.
Valdosta tallied 237 yards of total offense –– finishing with just 20 yards rushing on the night, despite six different players logging carries in the game. Columbia racked up 443 yards of total offense, led by Griffin who completed 18-of-40 passes for 298 yards and five touchdowns with an interception.
Jaheim Bell accounted for two touchdowns in the game for Valdosta –– one on a reception, the other a 1-yard rush that came with 3:28 left in the first quarter. The senior receiver, like his head coach, wasn’t happy with how the game went and expressed concern ahead of next week’s matchup with Colquitt County.
“We came out pretty good as an offense,” Bell said. “Our O-line and my quarterback, without them, (those points) wouldn’t be possible. That wasn’t a good game. We’ve got to come back out next and play better because we play (Colquitt County), and if we play like we did tonight, then we’re gonna lose. We’ve got to get back to work Monday and get right for next week.”
Valdosta hosts Region 1-7A powerhouse Colquitt County.
“Moultrie is gonna be Moultrie,” Bell said of next week’s matchup. “That’s a hard-nosed team. We’ve got to come out and compete for it to be a great game.”