That’s all that stands between the Valdosta State Blazers and their first solo Gulf South Conference championship since 2004.
The Blazers can clinch at least a share of the GSC title with only one win in their final two games, but they’d rather win both games and be champions by themselves. To do that, the Blazers need to beat rival West Georgia this Saturday and West Alabama next Thursday.
“It’s much more important to do that,” Blazers head coach David Dean said about winning the conference outright, and not sharing the crown. “Not only that, but I think we’re probably not going to fall below No. 2 in the region rankings if we win both of our last games. Those two things mean a lot to us.”
Since the Blazers stunned North Alabama three weeks ago to vault back into the GSC title race, they have been tested. That doesn’t figure to change this Saturday. The Wolves (3-5) are out of playoff contention, but a win would make their season.
For those who don’t think it’s possible for a seemingly-mediocre West Georgia team to come down to Bazemore-Hyder Stadium and ruin VSU’s season, take a look back at the 2005 season.
On the last day of the regular season in 2005, VSU needed to beat West Georgia at home to secure the GSC championship, a first round bye and homefield advantage in the playoffs. West Georgia beat VSU that day, 29-15. The Blazers didn’t win the GSC, and lost in the first round of the playoffs the following week.
“We did not go out there and play the way we needed to play,” said Dean, who was the offensive coordinator on that team. “I’ve already mentioned it to (this year’s team). I’m not going to mention it again. I mentioned it to them Sunday that that happened, and we’re in that exact same scenario. We can’t let that happen again.”
It is a similar situation. Not only is the GSC title on the line, but the Blazers are No. 2 in the Super Region 2 poll. If the Blazers win their last two games against the Wolves and West Alabama, they should get a first round bye and a home playoff game in the second round. If they lose, the solo GSC title is likely gone, along with a bye week.
And with injuries piling up, especially on the offensive side of the ball, VSU could desperately use a week off.
“It’s huge,” Dean said. “(The bye) helped us in 2007, because we were able to regroup, kind of kick back and refocus. We didn’t have to jump right into the playoffs. The first week of the playoffs is always very difficult, because you get the film late, you’re trying to figure out who your opponent is. There’s just a lot of things that take place. If you’re trying to go on the road, you’re making travel plans. It’s really a big headache, so if we have the opportunity to sit back as a team and a coaching staff and evaluate what’s going to happen and who we could possibly play, that’d be huge for us.”
At this point, it’s about surviving. The Blazers are down to one healthy quarterback in freshman Brett Whitmire. They were without their leading wide receiver, Gerald Ford (who was out with a knee injury), last week against Arkansas Tech. Right guard Kyle Fox, one of just two seniors on the offensive line, is playing through an injury. VSU’s best all-around offensive weapon, Ronnye Nelson, has a broken bone in his foot.
The youth and injuries on offense have been reflected in the score of nearly every game this season. The Blazers have only scored more than 28 points one time this season, and they are seventh in the GSC in scoring offense (23.5 points per game) and eighth in total offense (321.5 yards per game). The offense has been held out of the end zone in two of the eight games. After beating Arkansas Tech 21-7 on Saturday (VSU’s offense committed five turnovers and scored two touchdowns, one of which was a nine-yard drive), Whitmire summed up the offense’s performance as “disappointing.”
While the Air Raid offense has been put on hold, fortunately for the Blazers, the Black Swarm defense is all the way back. In the two games VSU’s offense was held out of the end zone, against Southern Arkansas and North Alabama, the Blazers went 2-0. That was due in large part because the defense scored three touchdowns against Southern Arkansas, and held North Alabama to a program-low 101 yards of offense.
The Black Swarm did it again at Arkansas Tech by holding the Wonder Boys to 99 yards of offense. Stevie Harden put the game away with an interception return for a touchdown. It was Harden’s fourth touchdown of the year, which is more than any offensive player.
“Obviously (the defense) has carried us all year long,” Dean said. “But we knew our defense was going to be good. I thought our offense would play a little better than it has. We just can’t keep a regular lineup out there to create any consistency, and we’ve had a lot of inconsistent play from our wide receiver position and quarterback position. For our defense and what they have done, they’re obviously the most valuable players on our football team right now, because we wouldn’t be where we are if our defense doesn’t play the way they’ve been playing.”
Eight games into the season, that’s who the Blazers are. That likely means two more regular season games that will come down to the wire, starting Saturday.