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UWA heads to Valdosta as Willis closes in on rushing record

For the second consecutive year West Alabama travels to Valdosta State to open the Gulf South Conference portion of its football schedule, and for the second straight year Tiger running back Matt Willis figures to play an integral role.

In 2011, Willis ran for a career-high 219 yards, but UWA lost to the Blazers, 22-21. A repeat performance would make the senior from Collins, Miss., the all-time leading rusher in school history. He needs 181 yards to set the mark, but Willis would trade all his rushing yards for a Tiger victory.

“It’s more important to win. I like to win,” Willis said Thursday as preparations for the Blazers were winding down. “It would mean a lot to get the record, but I know that down the line somebody else will come along and break it again. It will be something I can tell my son about one day.

“This is a big game for me because I know that this year they will be keying on me and having extra guys in the box, but team-wise, it would be a really big win for us,” Willis said. “The offensive line did a great job of blocking for me over there last year. That was basically it.”

The Tigers and Blazers were the preseason favorites to contend for the GSC title, but one key difference between the two national-ranked Division II powerhouses lies in offensive philosophy.

“They are a four-wide, throw it around team with a great quarterback and four or five great receivers,” UWA head coach Will Hall said. “We are a line up and come right at you mentality. I believe that also helps us on defense working against that. That’s why we do it.”

Both teams come into the game with 2-1 records, but UWA’s second-year head coach knows Valdosta doesn’t back away from a challenge, much like his own club.

“They are battle tested. They have played at (No. 20) Saginaw Valley State, which is a very tough test, and then played Angelo State in Dallas,” Hall said. “Obviously, Valdosta is not an easy place to win since we’ve never won there in school history.”

The game kicks off at 7 p.m. eastern time at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium in Valdosta, Ga.