VALDOSTA, Ga. – Matt Pierce returned two interceptions for touchdowns, the game winner for 85 yards with 5:25 remaining, to lead No. 12 Valdosta State to a 22-21 victory over No. 22 West Alabama in the Gulf South Conference opener for both teams at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium Saturday afternoon.
The win improved the Blazers to 6-1 on the season and 1-0 in GSC play while West Alabama fell to 5-2 and 0-1 in league action.
Pierce's first interception came in the second quarter when he picked off a Kyle Caldwell pass on the West Alabama 35 and returned it for a 16-7 VSU lead. The points would be the final for Valdosta State until Pierce stepped in front of a Karl Birkenfield pass on the Blazer 15 and caught the ball in stride before racing untouched to the end zone to give VSU the winning margin.
Each team scored on its opening possession. West Alabama took the opening kickoff and marched 69 yards on six plays to grab a 7-0 lead. Matt Willis did the majority of the damage on the drive as he carried the ball four times for 65 yards, including a 48-yard rumble that moved the ball to the VSU 3. Two plays later, the Tiger running back took a handoff and ran six yards for a score.
Valdosta State quickly answered as it needed just three plays to even the game at 7-7. After a pass to Tray Herndon and a David Bailey run picked up 22 yards, Reggie Lewis took a hand off on an apparent reverse, but pulled up and found a streaking Scott Fambrough down the UWA sideline. Fambrough hauled in the pass and broke a tackle to score on a 46-yard reception, the first touchdown of his career.
The Blazers grabbed their first lead with a 28-yard field goal from Daniel Andersen just 48 seconds into the third quarter before Pierce recorded his first interception return of the day. The extra point on the touchdown missed wide right to establish a 16-7 VSU advantage.
West Alabama marched 81 yards on 12 plays to close to within two points on a 21-yard reception by Ken May with 30 seconds remaining to cut the Blazer advantage to 16-14 at the half.
West Alabama regained the lead in the third quarter when Gerald Worsham scored on a nine-yard run with 2:00 remaining in the frame. The touchdown run capped off an 11-play, 71-yard drive and posted the Tigers to a 21-16 lead.
Valdosta State moved into West Alabama territory on each of its next two possessions, but saw a field goal miss wide left and a fourth down try fall an inch short of a first down. West Alabama took over the ball on its own 27 with 8:19 remaining and used three minutes to move down the field before Pierce tallied the game-winning interception.
Valdosta State was limited to just 278 total yards in the game while West Alabama rolled to 420, including 301 on the ground. VSU's Cayden Cochran completed 22-of-32 passes for 144 yards in his first start for the Blazers while David Bailey carried the ball 16 times for 81 yards. Seantavious Jones caught eight passes for 60 yards.
Harrison Dreiling led the Blazer defense with 13 tackles while Chris Pope tallied 10. Pierce finished with a season-high seven tackles and a pass broken up to go along with his 120 yards on the two interception returns.
Matthew Willis blistered the Blazers with 219 rushing yards on 31 carries and also caught two passes for 16 yards. Caldwell completed 14-of-28 passes for 119 yards while Worsham caught five passes for 34 yards and ran six times for 57 yards.
Gabe Poe registered 12 tackles to lead the Tigers defensively while Deon Lacey finished with 11, including two sacks.
Valdosta State returns to action next Saturday, October 22 at 4:00 p.m. EDT when it travels to Cleveland, Miss. to face off against Delta State, which is slated to take over the top spot in the national rankings after defeating No. 1 North Alabama Thursday evening.