VALDOSTA, Ga. – A hard-fought battle produced a bitter ending for the Valdosta State football team, as the Blazers suffered a 30-24 loss to the No. 11 ranked North Alabama Lions on Saturday night at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium in Valdosta, Ga.
With the win, the Lions evened up their early season record at 1-1 and kicked off their Gulf South Conference schedule at 1-0. Meanwhile, the Blazers fell to 0-2 and started their GSC stint at 0-1.
The Lions' offense opened up the contest with a bang, using just three plays to rip off 54 yards in less than two minutes. The drive ended with a 17-yard pass from Blake Hawkins to Austin Hicks for a touchdown strike, which put UNA on top 7-0.
After the early score, a defensive struggle ensued. As the two teams battled to break through, VSU's Black Swarm came up big late in the opening frame when Josh Ealy recovered a deflection on a lateral pass by Hawkins and took it the distance to tie the game at 7-7.
The turnover-riddled first half stayed true to form midway through the second quarter, when UNA botched a 1st and goal opportunity at Valdosta State's two yard line with their second of three fumbles on the night. The Blazers turned it back over, however, when Dwain Smith picked off a Rogan Wells pass and returned it inside VSU's 10-yard line with just 1:36 to play in the half.
The Lions capitalized on the opportunity, and Rico Bruton, who came on for an injured Hawkins on the drive, used the short field opportunity to punch in a 1-yard rush for a touchdown and give UNA the 14-7 advantage at the half.
The thrilling see-saw showdown carried right over into the second half, when Wells put together an eight-play, 47-yard march down the field to tie the game up again at 14-14. Jordan Germany complemented Wells' steady drive with three rushes for over 20 yards.
A pair of defensive stops led to one of UNA's most impressive drives of the night, as Bruton accounted for over half of the Lions' 66 yards with three big rushes. His last rush of four yards put the backup quarterback in the endzone and gave UNA a 21-14 lead with 2:54 to play in the third.
Valdosta State fired back on the ensuing drive late in the third, and Wells completed a huge third down pass just past midfield to Tshumbi Johnson to end the quarter. On the play, which marked the last of the third quarter, a devastating late hit put an end to Wells' evening. Adam Robles entered the game, however, and on his first snap of the night, the junior connected with De'Sean Blair for an 18-yard fade route, which resulted in a Blazer touchdown and tied the game up at 21-21.
The Blazers got the break they were looking for on UNA's follow up drive, as senior Brandon Roe picked off Bruton and returned the interception 37 yards to set up Andrew Gray for a 20-yard field goal. The kick marked Gray's first successful field goal of the season and gave the Blazers their first lead of the night at 24-21.
The lead didn't prove to be enough, as UNA answered with back-to-back scores to reclaim a 30-24 lead. Valdosta State possessed the ball three more times down the stretch, but the Lion defense remained stingy, resulting in a 30-24 final.
The Lions turned the ball over five times in the contest, but the Blazers faced similar woes in the turnover department with four cough-ups of their own. Perhaps the most eye-popping stat of the night was the work of Bruton, particularly on the ground. After coming on to replace Hawkins in the first half, Bruton rushed for 79 yards in the game, which marked a team-high for the Lions.
Multiple players were forced to exit the contest due to injury, including both of the team's starting quarterbacks. Before Wells' premature exit, the redshirt sophomore racked up 76 net yards on the ground and picked up the first rushing touchdown of his collegiate career.
Valdosta State will hit the road next week with a trip to Pensacola, Fla. to face the West Florida Argonauts at 7:00 p.m. EST. Look for live link coverage right here at www.vstateblazers.com.