VALDOSTA, Ga. – North Alabama turned four Valdosta State first quarter turnovers into three touchdowns as the Lions defeated the Blazers 43-20 in the first round of the NCAA Division II Playoffs Saturday afternoon at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium.
Three of the four turnovers came on the VSU end of the field while the fourth, an interception, was returned to the Valdosta State 46. After the Blazers stopped North Alabama (9-3) on the first drive of the game, Austen Roberts fumbled the snap on the first Valdosta State drive of the contest. The quarterback recovered the ball, but two plays later Ronnye Nelson fumbled on the VSU 28 and Courtney Harris recovered for the Lions.
The Blazers again stopped the UNA defense, but on a pooch punt by North Alabama quarterback Lee Chapple, Dudley Spence was hit and coughed up the ball on the VSU 11. Jusmon Rivers recovered the fumble for North Alabama, leading to an Antwan Ivey touchdown on the next play from scrimmage to put UNA up 6-0 after the extra point was blocked.
Valdosta State (8-3) gained its only lead of the game on the next possession as Nelson returned the kickoff to the VSU 38 and ran for 52 yards on the first play from scrimmage. Two plays later, Roberts completed a shovel pass to Cameo Holloway and the fullback scored from four yards out to put VSU in front 7-6.
North Alabama needed just five plays to regain the lead as Rivers caught a 47 yard pass from Chapple to move the ball into Blazer territory while Ivey scored on a 17-yard run. The extra point was again blocked to give UNA a 12-7 advantage with 6:47 to go in the first quarter.
David Bailey fumbled on the first Valdosta State play from scrimmage on the ensuing drive and UNA’s Tommie Westbrook recovered on the VSU 28 to set up a one-yard scoring dive by Chris Coffey while John Ware picked off a Roberts pass and returned it to the VSU 46 on the next Valdosta State drive that set up a 24-yard scoring run by Coffey on the last play of the first quarter.
North Alabama pushed its lead to 33-7 on Valdosta State’s second possession of the second quarter when a Jack Fulford punt went off the back of VSU’s Cam Short. Rivers recovered the blocked punt on the VSU 12 and raced untouched into the end zone.
Daniel Andersen added a 28-yard field goal with 4:29 remaining in the first half to establish a 33-10 UNA lead at the intermission.
Valdosta State used a field goal and a touchdown in the third quarter to close to within 13 points. After fumbling on the opening drive of the second half, the Blazer defense forced a three-and-out by North Alabama before driving 50 yards for a 47-yard field goal by Andersen.
The VSU defense again held North Alabama to just three plays on the next drive, before putting together a nine-play, 52 yard drive that culminated with a three-yard Brett Whitmire to Gerald Ford touchdown pass that cut the Lion lead to just 13 points.
After being held to negative two yards of total offense in the third quarter, the UNA offense responded in the fourth as it opened the quarter with 14-play, 77 yard drive that ended with a Josh Montgomery field goal. Chapple completed five of his six passes on the drive, including a 27-yard completion to Chris Simpson on a third-and-8 play that moved the ball to the VSU 29. UNA closed to within the Blazer 5 before Montgomery came on and kicked a 22 yard field goal to push the Lion lead back to 36-20.
After Darnell Jackson intercepted a Whitmire pass on the first VSU play from scrimmage, Coffey added his third touchdown of the day on a 29-yard run to close out the scoring.
North Alabama finished the game with 309 yards of total offense, including 163 passing yards by Chapple and 146 yards on the ground. Coffey led the Lion rushing attack with 78 yards while Donald Bowens caught four passes for 36 yards. Harrison Bryant tallied eight tackles and a forced fumble to lead the UNA defense, which forced seven turnovers total in the game.
Valdosta State tallied 203 total yards of offense, including 132 rushing and 71 through the air. Nelson gained a career-high 122 on the ground and also caught four passes for 15 yards while Whitmire completed 14-of-18 passes for 62 yards and a score. Larry Dean tallied 10 tackles, including 1.5 for loss, to lead VSU defensively. The senior finished his career with 368 career tackles, establishing a new Gulf South Conference and Valdosta State career mark.
North Alabama moves onto to meet Delta State in Cleveland, Miss. next Saturday, November 27 in the second round of the Division II football playoffs.