Tigers run past Valdosta State, 39-28

Published 10:28 pm Saturday, September 22, 2012

VALDOSTA, Ga. – West Alabama had never beaten Valdosta State at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium. They have now.

The Tigers rushed for 332 yards, including 178 from running back Matt Willis and 120 more from quarterback Gary Johnston, on the way to a 39-28 Gulf South Conference victory over the Blazers.

The UWA win snapped a 16-game losing streak on the Blazers home field. The Tigers improved to 3-1 overall and 1-0 in the GSC. Valdosta State dropped to 2-2 and 0-1 in a battle of two top 25 NCAA Division II teams.

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“We dominated the game, then we let them back in it and then we dominated it again,” head coach Will Hall said. “I am so pleased about how we held on to the rope and fought through adversity.

“We built our program on being physical and everybody who puts a ring on their finger does it that way,” Hall said. “Sometimes it’s not pretty and sometimes people don’t like it, but they liked it tonight.”

In addition to Willis and Johnston’s heroics, strong safety Otha Foster tied a school record with three interceptions and kicker Ryne Smith extend his consecutive field goal streak to 20 with two field goals of 41 yards, plus a 38 and 27-yarder.

“You can’t be a great player until you make great plays. Otha Foster makes a lot of great plays and doesn’t, for whatever reason, get the recognition he deserves,” Hall said. “I hope to God I have a kicker like Ryne Smith for the rest of my career. People just don’t understand how good he is.”

Valdosta State drew first blood, driving 75 yards in 12 plays to take a 7-0 lead on its first possession of the game. A 4-yard pass from Cayden Cochran to Gerald Ford capped the drive.

UWA answered later in the first period when wide receiver Malik Lofton scored on a 13-yard reverse to top off a 66-yard, six-play drive.

The Tigers took a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter when Smith connected on a 41-yard field goal. Smith then converted on a 38-yarder with 5:54 to play in the first half to stretch UWA’s lead to 13-7.

Kyle Caldwell and Stacey Graham hooked up on a 34-yard touchdown pass with 49 seconds left in the first half to give West Alabama a 20-7 lead at the intermission. The TD reception was the first in Graham’s career.

Willis needs just three yards next week against West Georgia to break the school career rushing record. He has 2,055 yards in just 16 games as a Tiger. Johnny Shepherd (1980-82) holds the record.

“The offensive line was great and Matt Willis is the best running back in the nation in Division II,” Johnston said. “They brought it to us. We knew it was going to be a fight. We took it them and they gave it right back.”

Valdosta State stormed out in the third quarter to cut the lead to 20-14 on a 31-yard touchdown pass from Graham Craig to Ford and then took the lead at 21-20 when Trokon Gaye forced a Caldwell fumble and Tyler Josey recovered it in the end zone for a Blazer touchdown.

“We knew they would come back strong,” Foster said. “They are a good football team. We just kept playing our game and came out on top.”

West Alabama rallied with a 10-play, 81-yard drive on its next possession to take a 27-21 lead midway through the third quarter. Reggie Hall became the second UWA receiver two score on a running play, capping the drive with a 2-yard score on the speed sweep.

A 4-yard run by Johnston and Smith’s last field in the fourth quarter sealed the deal for UWA.

Craig was 12-of-22 for 157 yards and two touchdowns for Valdosta and Cochran completed 7-of-19 for 93 and a score. The Tigers limited the Blazers to just 133 yards on the ground.

Shontral Ford led UWA defenders with eight tackles, followed by Rico Jerhighan and Antonio Curry with seven each. Curry, Ben Brooks and Willie Packer all recorded a sack. The Tigers had six tackles for loss in the game.