By Marty Kirkland

vdt.sport@gaflnews.com



VALDOSTA -- Albany State is billing today's Division II quarterfinal between its Golden Rams and visiting Valdosta State as Clash of the Titans II, a reference to the fact that the two football teams will be meeting for the second time this year.

But if the game plays out like the typical Hollywood sequel - bigger and bolder, but with a plot that disappoints everyone who enjoyed the original - VSU football fans will leave the Albany Municipal Coliseum as one very happy audience.

Albany State (11-0) notched its first-ever victory against the Blazers (10-1) with a 24-22 win on Sept. 4 and claimed a stake in the rivalry, which the Blazers had dominated by winning the first nine games of the series.

However, with the next step toward a national championship on the line in Albany today, there's much more to fight for than bragging rights.

"You win this one, you go to the national semifinals," VSU coach Chris Hatcher said. "Our goal is to be the Southeast Regional champions, and we've got to beat Albany State in order to achieve it."

The first meeting between the two teams was a dogfight, as Albany State and VSU swapped the lead several times. It was also marred by yellow flags, as both teams made a nearly even split of a whopping 24 total penalties for 223 yards.

Albany State and VSU have moved forward since then. The SIAC champion Golden Rams, who own the longest active winning streak in Division II at 19, have built what is already the most successful season in the program's history, while the Blazers shook off the loss by piling up 10 straight wins and another Gulf South Conference title.

So in some ways, this is not the same squad that dropped its season opener to the Golden Rams.

"We have a totally different ball team than we had early in the season," Hatcher said. "Same players, but we're playing with a lot more confidence. As a coaching staff, we know what our guys can do now. Our team's playing its best ball of the season right now and that's a good thing to be doing when you get to postseason play."

The Blazers certainly looked like a team reaching the peak in last week's second-round, 38-12 win over Carson-Newman.

VSU kept the Eagles' vaunted offense out of the end zone until the game's final minute, while Blazers quarterback Fabian Walker and the offense rolled up passing yardage in the first half before turning to a punishing ground game in the second.

Albany State fared just as well in it second-round playoff game, rolling over GSC runner-up Arkansas Tech, 42-24, and looking like a team that has every intention of sticking around as long as possible this postseason.

The Golden Rams' powerful offense is a major part of that plan, with several running backs who all receive their fair share of touches. Last week, it was backup Vaeontra Hughes who stepped up to steer the ground game, rushing for 110 yards and a touchdown.

Yet there's no doubt that the big cog in the Albany State offense is quarterback Uyl Joyner, who has passed for nearly 1,900 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushed for more than 300 yards and six touchdowns.

VSU's defense has faced several signal callers who are dual threats this season, though, and picked up valuable experience about defending such a quarterback.

"We've seen our fair share of great quarterbacks, and he's one of the best," Hatcher said. "He's won the most games of anybody we've played, so he's a great leader for their football team. He's the guy that makes them go."

Albany State's defense shouldn't be overlooked, either, despite surrendering 458 yards of total offense to Arkansas Tech last week. The Golden Rams, who rank eighth nationally in scoring defense and 11th in total defense, held the Blazers to season lows in total offense and points the first time around.

But the Blazers will look to put that game, and all the bad feelings its stirs up, far behind them today.

"It's still there," VSU sophomore linebacker Cody Thomas said. "We just have to get ourselves ready mentally. We can't worry about what happened in the past. We've got to look forward to this game."

One asset the Blazers can count on is team chemistry. Following last week's win over Carson-Newman, Hatcher praised this year's team as the best in his tenure in terms of its ability to play as one unit.

"When you play as a team, good things happen," Thomas said. "We work together. We hang out off the field. Everyone gets along. When you have that, you have something special."

In addition to clearing the air of their first loss to Albany State, the Blazers will hope today to do something no VSU football team has done in four tries - win a playoff game on the road.



VSU at Albany State

Quarterfinals of the Division II playoffs (Southeast Region

championship)

1 p.m. at Albany Municipal Stadium

RADIO: WWRQ 107.9 FM

LAST MEETING: Albany State won 24-22 on Sept. 4, kicking the game-winning 35-yard field goal with 1:23 to play. The Golden Rams converted a fourth-and-19 to keep that drive alive.

ALL-TIME SERIES: VSU leads 9-1

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