Written by Gabe Burns, Asst. Sports Editor
The Valdosta State Blazers (5-2, 2-2) are presented an opportunity to move above .500 in conference play on Saturday when the team hosts the West Alabama Tigers (6-2, 2-2).
The game is as pivotal as they come for both schools. The winner keeps pace with West Georgia, North Alabama and Florida Tech in the upper-half of the conference, while the loser faces an uphill climb for a postseason berth.
Despite already losing to UWG and UNA, the Blazers have a looming matchup with Florida Tech in mid-November. If VSU grabs a win this week, they will be well positioned to finish in at least third place in the Gulf South Conference.
That win will not come easy. The Tigers have been an offensive juggernaut this season with an average of 31.3 points per game, while having put up north of that number in five of their eight contests.
UWA’s performance in the GSC has somewhat mirrored that of VSU’s. The Tigers have split their first four conference games, and also suffered a loss at the hands of West Georgia.
In conference play, UWA has given up 30 points per game. While their offense has proven to be formidable, the Tigers’ defense has consistently been susceptible to the big play and UWA has become reliant on shootout victories.
Last week was such a case, when the Tigers defeated Delta State 41-38, just a week after topping Shorter 52-27.
The Blazers are no strangers to shootouts themselves, recently pulling away late to get their own win over Shorter last Thursday, 37-22.
There are two statistical facets of West Alabama that VSU is well positioned to exploit. The first is UWA’s red zone touchdown efficiency, which is an uninspiring 45 percent. The Blazers have applied the bend-but-don’t-break defensive theory well for most of the season, and taking advantage of the Tigers’ struggles inside the 20 may well become the difference in the game.
The second point of emphasis for the Blazers should be in their passing offense. West Alabama allows 235 yards through the air each game, in comparison to a VSU offense that throws for 223.7 on the average week.
The Blazers’ current dual-quarterback system, featuring EJ Hilliard and Roland Rivers, has been successful to this point. It is crucial that coach David Dean allows whichever signal caller playing to have enough time to build a rhythm, instead of swapping them in and out at potentially inopportune times. Dean has fared well in that respect thus far, but must maintain proper management of the situation this weekend for the Blazers to emerge victorious.
The game will be held at noon on Oct. 31 at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium.