VALDOSTA, Ga. –Valdosta State's comeback bid fell short as No. 14 UNC-Pembroke defeated the Blazers 34-29 in non-conference football action at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium Thursday evening.
With the win, the Braves improved to 8-1 on the season while VSU fell to 5-4.
UNCP raced out to a 20-0 first half lead as its defense thwarted the Blazer offense for the first 23 minutes of the game. The Braves capitalized as It got a pair of touchdown catches by Te'vell Williams and two field goals by Connor Haskins in building their lead.
Valdosta State finally broke on the scoreboard with 3:14 remaining in the first half when Seantavius Jones hauled in a deep pass from Cayden Cochran and raced 69 yards for a touchdown. After forcing a UNC-Pembroke punt, the Blazers again moved into Braves territory, but saw a fourth down pass to the end zone fall incomplete to establish a 20-7 UNC halftime lead.
The Blazers moved closer on their first possession of the second half as Cedric O'Neal scored on a 37-yard run with 11:53 remaining in the third quarter. VSU got the ball at its own 49 yard line after Justin Williams stripped Michael Isbell of the ball and Manny Evans dove on the fumble. The Blazers put the ball in the air only once on the ensuing drive as O'Neal took a hand-off and broke numerous tackles to pull Valdosta State to within 20-14.
UNC-Pembroke answered with a nine-play, 75-yard drive that saw Rontonio Stanley score on a 19-yard run, only to have the Blazer defense respond with a pair of scores to close VSU to within 27-23 with 3:29 to play in the third quarter.
After a Dominic DeMasi punt was downed on the UNCP 2 yard line, Jeremy Grable broke through the line of scrimmage on the first play and tackled Stanley for a safety for the first two of nine straight points for the Black Swarm defense. Valdosta State was unable to move the ball following the free kick and was once again forced to punt. DeMasi's boomer was again downed on the UNCP 2 and Dominique Wheeler stepped in front of a Luke Charles pass for an interception, which he returned 12 yards to pull the Blazers to within four points.
Valdosta State's kickoff coverage squad held UNC-Pembroke to a return to just the 18-yard line on the ensuing kickoff and, after a false start penalty on second down backed the Braves up five more yards, the Blazers looked primed to once again get the ball in good field position. However, following the penalty, Charles completed a screen pass to Stanley, who broke one tackle and raced 87 yards for the final UNCP points of the night.
The Blazers were forced to punt on their next possession, but B.J. Bunn dropped the fair catch call and VSU's D'Amonte Ridley jumped on the fumble to give VSU new life on the UNCP39. The Blazers rode O'Neal's legs on the ensuing drive as he carried the ball five times for 36 yards. However, facing a second-and-goal from the UNCP three, a Kaleb Nobles pass to Jones was tipped by a Brave linebacker and the ball proceeded to fall into the arms of Dominique Bridge in the end zone to preserve the 11-point UNCP advantage with 13:39 remaining in the game.
Neither team moved the ball well for the next 10 minutes before the Blazers put together one last comeback bid. Nobles engineered an 11-play, 49-yard drive that culminated with five-yard touchdown pass to Regginald Lewis, although the two-point try was unsuccessful to give the Braves a five-point cushion.
An onside kick followed and Blazer kicker Jake Walker fell on the ball on the VSU 46 yard line to give Valdosta State one last chance. However, Nobles was hit as he released a pass on the first play from scrimmage and the ball fell into the arms of UNCP's Fred Williams to seal the Brave victory.
Valdosta State's Chris Pope tallied seven tackles in the game to move to 370 for his career, surpassing current Minnesota Viking Larry Dean as the Gulf South Conference and Valdosta State career record holder for tackles. Grable and Williams had 11 tackles each to lead VSU while Evans had 10.
Valdosta State tallied 351 yards of total offense in the game, sparked by 130 receiving yards by Jones, who had nine catches. O'Neal rushed for 90 yards on 11 carries while Cochran completed 15-of-27 passes for 169 yards in the first half before leaving due to injury. Nobles completed 14-of-23 passes for 118 yards. Meanwhile, DeMasi punted the ball 10 times for an average of 43.6 yards per punt.
The Braves tallied 486 yards of total offense, including 78 rushing and 408 through the air. Charles completed 35-of-50 passes in the game, including five catches for 142 yards by Stanley, who also carried the ball 18 times for 96 yards. Williams finished with nine catches for 102 yards.
Valdosta State closes out its 2013 schedule next week when the Blazers travel to Texas A&M-Kingsville for an 8:00 p.m. kickoff.