When the Blazers needed a stop, Nick Jackson answered the call.
The graduate defensive back shut down the Limestone Saints’ bid for an improbable comeback by picking off quarterback Dustin Noller, potentially saving the season in the process.
The play came just as the Saints were looking to cut the lead to seven after trailing 38-7 early in the third quarter.
Blazers’ head coach Tremaine Jackson knew just how significant that interception was.
“Anytime you get a takeaway, it’s big, especially when you take the ball away and score and get a chance to widen the gap,” he said. “We were up 14. If they had cut it, it would have been to seven, and now you find yourself in a tight fight. We were able to get the lead back to 21. … When we get the takeaway, we expect to go score. When we did that, I kind of knew what was going to happen.”
The offense cashed in on the turnover to extend the lead back to 21. Though the Saints (8-4) continued to respond, the Blazers (11-1) ultimately prevailed 62-41.
With the win, the Blazers will get another crack at Delta State in Cleveland, Mississippi, in the second round of the NCAA Division II Playoffs. The Statesmen handed the Blazers their only loss of the season on Oct. 7 in a 49-25 decision.
VSU’s Scorching Start
Just how exactly did the Blazers find themselves in this position?
It was smooth sailing for the Blazers throughout the first half. VSU found the end zone on four of their first five possessions of the game and built a commanding 28-0 lead just 18 minutes into the game.
It was the kind of start that Coach Jackson had hoped for and then some.
“When you do that [go up 28-0], it makes people change their game plan. It makes people change,” Coach Jackson said. “When you’re going back and forth, they can continue to be who they are. We’ve changed some things defensively from the middle of the season to now. We need to be able to get up so we can change, so we can adhere to those changes and force people into doing stuff that they don’t want to do offensively.”
The Blazers did exactly that as the Saints were forced into taking downfield shots throughout the remainder of the game.
Limestone finally got on the board with under five minutes left in the first half. Still, VSU tacked on a 22-yard field goal from graduate kicker Estin Thiele to take a 31-7 lead into halftime.
After getting another stop to open up the second half, the Blazers marched right back down the field and scored their fifth touchdown of the afternoon to make it 38-7.
That’s when things started getting weird.
Limestone’s Valiant Charge
With time not on their side, the Saints needed points and needed them fast. Much to VSU’s credit, Limestone had struggled to move the ball throughout the game, crossing midfield just once.
Things changed in a hurry as Noller and the Saints quickly got into a groove.
For three straight drives, Noller made quick work of VSU’s defense, tossing touchdown passes on all three drives. The longest of those drives took just 2:44.
Defensively, the Saints began generating more pressure on junior quarterback Sammy Edwards. While he wasn’t sacked as much as he was earlier in the game, the pressure was enough for Edwards and the offense to be off schedule.
Despite that, Edwards says he wasn’t taken off guard by what he saw from Limestone’s defense.
“They didn’t show us anything different,” Edwards said. “I think they are confident in who they are. I think they are confident in their ability. They did a good job of that. I think we game planned really well with Coach Bowie, and we had a good week.”
The Blazers were forced to punt twice and had to settle for a field goal in between.
What was once a 38-7 game was suddenly a 41-27 game early in the fourth quarter, and Limestone had the ball with a chance to draw within a touchdown.
All the momentum had swung in the Saints’ favor…
Jackson Ends Limestone’s Threat
…and then it promptly swung back in the Blazers’ favor.
Just two plays into their next drive, the Saints watched their comeback bid come to a screeching halt thanks to Nick Jackson’s interception.
With the Blazers having their best starting field position since their first drive of the second half, Edwards and company went straight to work.
Six plays later, Edwards found freshman wide receiver Rodney Bullard for a 10-yard touchdown pass as the Blazers went up 48-27.
The momentum shift carried over onto the next defensive possession as the Blazers forced a turnover on downs.
Just three plays later, sophomore running back Bud Chaney is running it in for a 3-yard touchdown run to once again give VSU a 28-point cushion.
The Saints would score twice over the final four minutes. However, another VSU touchdown by way of a 31-yard run from sophomore running back Isaiah Flowers salted away any chance of a miracle.
Still, Coach Jackson was not pleased with the way his team finished the game after the fast start.
“I was really proud of our kids. We needed to start fast,” Jackson said. “Not so proud of the way we finished, but we needed to start fast. I thought we started extremely fast against a football team that had proven all year that they were the ones to start fast.”
Edwards Makes History
For 22 years, former quarterback and two-time Harlon Hill Trophy winner Dusty Bonner had held the school record for most touchdown passes in a single postseason game. Bonner threw for five touchdowns against Fort Valley State on Nov. 17, 2001.
After Saturday’s performance, that record now belongs to Sammy Edwards.
Edwards turned in one of his best performances of the season, tossing six touchdowns to four different receivers. Edwards also went 27 of 40 for 344 yards.
“We don’t chase the results. We try to get it the right way,” Jackson said of Edwards’ performance. “Now I think this dude is the player of the year. Can’t nobody tell me no different, and these guys in the locker room would agree with that. Regardless of what other dudes think, man, this dude is playing out of his mind right now.”
The Turnaround Continues
After VSU went 5-6 last season, there was clear disappointment from the players in the locker room.
Edwards, for one, hasn’t forgotten about the 2022 season.
“We don’t forget what happened last season,” Edwards said. “I think it makes us who we are.”
What changed from 2022 to 2023?
According to Coach Jackson, it all started in the locker room.
“We have guys in our locker room that have a desire to be together and the desire to get it the right way,” Jackson said. “I fully expected our guys to play at a high level this season. We’re just better people in our locker room to be quite honest.”
Jackson added: “To watch our guys get it the right way and get it the hard work way, I felt like we would be really successful. I think that speaks to why we’re able to, even when we hit a wall, most people panic. We don’t panic. We just need to get to the fourth quarter. If we can get you to the fourth quarter, we’ll take you to the deep end where there’s no lifeguards out there for you.”
Written by Austin Bruce, Co-Editor in Chief. Photos courtesy of Austin Bruce.