Written By: Chris Webb
Two months ago, No. 21 Valdosta State (8-2, 5-2) was coming off a demoralizing loss to No. 12 University of North Alabama (9-1, 6-1).
Today, the Blazers are preparing for their first-round rematch against the Lions.
With their backs against the wall, VSU proved all doubters wrong, finishing the season on a six-game winning streak, earning themselves a playoff spot.
During the streak, the Blazers have outscored their opponents 230-65 and enter the most important part of the season playing their best football.
Of course, it’s only right that the first obstacle in the way of another National Championship is the team that gave VSU its last loss.
A last second 54-yard field goal gave the Lions a 31-29 victory that at the time dropped the Blazers to 2-2 overall and 0-2 in Gulf South Conference play.
Initially appearing as a shot at the playoffs possibly slipping through their fingers, a loss like this would have crushed most team’s confidence and swagger, but not this Blazer squad.
“I think it’s safe to say that field goal was the turning point for our season,” running back Cedric O’Neal said. “I feel that loss brought us more together as a team. We put the field goal and everything else behind us and said our season starts over now.”
On paper this matchup is as close as the first match-up.
UNA’s offense is scoring 36.4 points a game while allowing 16.7. VSU comes in averaging 35.1 points a game while allowing 17.2.
The rematch and chance of redemption has added to the anticipation of players as well as coaches.
“We gave them everything we had earlier in the year and they beat us right there at the end with that field goal,” quarterback Kaleb Nobles said, “We are looking forward to it. We have been hoping to get another shot at those guys all year.”
Head coach David Dean is looking forward to getting another chance at the Lions, a rare opportunity in football.
“When I heard who we were up against I got excited,” Dean said, “In baseball when you lose to somebody you come out the next day and play again. In basketball you’ll see them again in a couple weeks. Football is different though; you don’t get another opportunity usually. We have a luxury here and have been given a second opportunity to prove we can beat (UNA).”
UNA thrived off of their big play ability in the first matchup with VSU.
Behind running back LaMonte Thompson and wide receiver Delvon Carpenter, UNA capitalized on big third down conversions on 4th quarter drives that ended up leading to their eventual 54-yard game winning field goal.
Thompson finished with 140 yards on 25 carries and two touchdowns, while Carpenter had four catches and 113 yards.
“When they had to drive the length of the field they were not as successful, but when they were able to get a big play that’s when they were able to score,” Dean said. “If we can prevent those defensively, we should be in better shape.”
On the offensive side of the ball, VSU will have to adjust to the recent injuries of left guard Felei Tauava (leg), wide receiver Shane Henderson (knee) and quarterback Jake Medlock (knee).
Tauava and Henderson are expected to miss the rest of the season recovering from their respective injuries.
Carrington Reyes will replace Tauava at LG, and WRs Roshmel Young and Xay Howard will step up in Henderson’s absence.
Medlock is questionable after not playing the previous two weeks. He has been nursing a knee injury suffered three weeks ago against West Alabama.
Kaleb Nobles has gotten each start since and has put up big numbers.
In these last two starts he has completed over 63 percent of his passes with 521 yards, four touchdowns, and even won the GSC offensive player of the week two weeks ago.
Nobles has silenced all critics and more importantly earned the support of his teammates.
Regardless of who is lined up behind center, the Blazers’ offense has looked powerful and effective all year.
With a powerful running game led by running backs Austin Scott and O’Neal look for the Blazers to keep things rolling in what is sure to be an action-packed playoff matchup.
The game will be played in Florence, Alabama and is scheduled for a 1 p.m. kickoff on Saturday.