This Saturday, the VSU Blazers begin their push for their third national championship since 2004, when they host Gulf South Conference rival North Alabama in the first round of the NCAA Division II playoffs.
The Division II playoff bracket was released live on ESPNews this past Sunday afternoon and at that time VSU learned they had been selected as the No. 3 team in Super Region II, behind undefeated Albany State and Gulf South Conference foe Delta State.
“I really thought after we lost Thursday night, we would drop to three or four,” VSU Head Coach David Dean said. “It didn’t surprise me and that is one thing I told our team in the locker room to be prepared to play next Saturday.”
Behind VSU stand the Wingate Bulldogs, who earned the No. 4 seed in the region, while Morehouse earned the No. 5 seed. North Alabama earned the No. 6 seed, despite being handed their third loss of the season last Saturday when they fell to the Harding Bison.
Much like UNA, the Blazers head into the playoffs coming off a loss, as VSU fell last Thursday night to the West Alabama Tigers. The loss dropped VSU to the third seed and cost them an outright GSC Championship, although they still earned a share.
Saturday’s game will mark the second meeting of the season between the two teams, as Valdosta State knocked off then undefeated and No. 3 North Alabama 5-0 in October.
In their 5-0 meeting earlier this season, VSU became the first team to rush for more than 100 yards against UNA on the season, as sophomore David Bailey tallied 103 yards.
Despite posting just five points on Oct. 14 in Florence, Ala., VSU dominated the time of possession; however, two costly red zone turnovers by running back David Arnold cost VSU scoring opportunities.
“It’s part of the game,” Arnold said when asked about his fumbles. “I have three fumbles on the year and it is just part of the game. I have 100 touches and three fumbles and I wish I could take (the fumbles) back. You try to bounce back and not think about it.”
VSU also showed their dominance defensively, as they sacked Lions quarterback Lee Chapple on the first three plays from scrimmage. Following the three straight sacks, Chapple showed considerable signs of discomfort in the pocket for the rest of the game.
Along with making Chapple uncomfortable, the VSU defense stifled the entire UNA offense, as they held the Lions to a school-low 101 yards of total offense. UNA never crossed the VSU 31-yard line.
“We realize they are going to make some adjustments to what we did,” Dean said. “They are playing a little better now offensively…They are starting to play a little bit better football offensively. I will be shocked if we hold them to 101 yards and I will be shocked if we shut them out.”
VSU punter Jack Fulford had a large impact on the UNA field position, as he pinned the Lions inside the 20-yard line on four different occasions, two of which were downed inside the UNA 10.
Fulford is expected to play another huge part in Saturday’s game, much like he has all season long. On the season, Fulford has 10 punts that have been downed inside the opponent’s 10-yard line, six of which have been downed inside the 5-yard line.
“It was fun,” Fulford said. “You prepare the same each week. I have my snapper there with me and my protection and look to do the same thing.”
As for the week of practice, VSU dressed in full pads during Tuesday afternoon’s practice, something they have done very little since the start of the regular season. On Wednesday, Dean said it was a way to bring intensity to the week of practice.
“We had four days off, you know we played Thursday night and took Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday without any type of practicing,” Dean said. “We felt like we needed to get back out here and hit a little bit because it had been a while.”
When they do take to the field on Saturday afternoon, UNA will be without their second leading receiver in Jarmon Fortson. Fortson was suspended earlier this week by head coach Terry Bowden for skipping class, according to the Times Daily newspaper in Florence, Ala.
“I’ve been in this game a long time,” Dean said. “You guys have seen the mind games that I play and that our coaches play, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he lines up.”
The winner of the VSU-UNA matchup will travel to Cleveland, Miss. on Nov. 27 to take on Delta State.