VALDOSTA –– Tonight marks the 60th all-time meeting between the Valdosta Wildcats (1-0) and the Tift County Blue Devils (0-1).
The ‘Cats are coming off of a win after thumping the Maynard Jackson Jaguars 55-7 in last week’s season opener. The Blue Devils were not as fortunate as they took a 24-10 home loss against Warner Robins last week.
Though Valdosta has had to deal with rain much of the week gearing up for the Blue Devils, head coach Alan Rodemaker is well aware of what the Blue Devils are capable of –– going as far as admitting he felt on edge about the game earlier this week.
After all, Tift County has won the last two meetings against Valdosta –– outscoring the ‘Cats 44-20.
“They’re big and strong up front,” Rodemaker said of the Blue Devils. “They whipped us on both sides of the football up front last year and they controlled the game. This year, they’re the same to me –– they want to run the football and then on defense, they want to stop the run and make you throw it.
“That Warner Robins game, they didn’t complete some deep balls. They had about seven deep balls and some of them were shorter, but they could’ve gone the distance. If they catch two of those, they win the football game. I saw a lot of open receivers down the field. They didn’t play well and they’re a whole lot better football team than what they played like Friday night.”
The Blue Devils are coached by Ashley Anders, who has amassed a 30-18 record going into his fifth season at Tift County.
Anders’ team is led by senior quarterback Joe Almond, who suited up for Lowndes last season. Almond completed 10-of-25 passes for 111 yards in last week’s loss to Warner Robins.
Tift senior wide out Jeremiah McKinnon had four catches for 36 yards, while fellow senior Quay Clines caught three passes for 43 yards in the game.
The ‘Cats will also need to have an answer for Blue Devils running back Walter Jackson. Jackson put in a workhorse effort against Warner Robins, carrying the ball 23 times for 105 yards.
Valdosta was impressive in its opening win against Maynard Jackson, making critical plays on defense and special teams as those units accounted for 21 of the team’s 55 points last Friday.
Valdosta went off for 55 points despite just 220 yards of total offense. The ‘Cats held the Jaguars to just 172 yards of total offense, producing two safeties and blocking three punts in the first half alone.
Valdosta’s Jaheim Bell demonstrated his versatility and explosiveness with the ball in his hands. Bell caught a 45-yard touchdown from fellow senior Tate Rodemaker in the first quarter, then opened the second half with a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
With Valdosta’s offense practically mired in Maynard Jackson’s Atlanta traffic jam tempo, Rodemaker completed just 5-of-8 passes for 96 yards, but hooked up with Bell and Tarrell Roberts for a pair of touchdowns in the first quarter. For the senior quarterback, the eight pass attempts were the lowest he’s had in a game since a 7-for-9 outing against Beaufort on Sept. 28, 2018.
In terms of the efficiency, the ‘Cats were still quite potent without racking up much in the way of yardage –– the ‘Cats offense produced 34 points on its own.
Valdosta offensive coordinator Josh Crawford talked about his offense’s efficiency with limited possessions following practice on Tuesday.
“Certainly we had some explosive plays in the passing game,” Crawford said. “We had a good yard per carry average –– even with limited opportunities. I’m eager to see us get going drive after drive after drive and see us be consistent for a full game. We didn’t get an opportunity to do that last Friday.”
According to Crawford, tonight’s game will come down to one thing: Execution.
“Listen, they’re big and their coaches do a good job of putting their players in good positions,” Crawford said. “Our guys will have to play with great effort and be in position and be where they’re supposed to be. Any time you play a good opponent, the word is always execution. I think that’s the biggest challenge they’re going to present for us is to be able to go out and consistently execute our offense.”
Despite holding Maynard Jackson to a single score, Coach Rodemaker believes it’s too early yet to determine just how good the ‘Cats are on the defensive end. Given the Jaguars’ poor play on special teams and an inability to put serious pressure on the Valdosta defense last week, Rodemaker wants to see his defense create more havoc rather than just feasting on the errors of the opposition.
“I don’t know how physical we are,” Rodemaker said of his team’s defense. “I think we flew around and made some plays. We were simple on defense and I think a lot of our success was based on (Jackson’s) failures. A wise man told me one time, ‘Don’t judge your success on other people’s failures.’ So I’m trying not to do that. I do think we’re better on defense that we were a year ago, but the true test will be this Friday.”
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Valdosta holds a 49-10 all-time record against Tift County. Prior to the Blue Devils’ two-game winning streak against the ‘Cats, Valdosta had won eight straight games against Tift County from 2009 to 2016. In 59 games, the Blue Devils have never defeated the Wildcats three games in a row. In fact, the current two-game winning streak is the first time Tift County has beaten Valdosta consecutively since 1979.