Written by Gabe Burns, Editor-in-Chief
One week after a sloppy 16-7 opening day win over Albany State, the Blazers traveled to Florence, Alabama, and were smashed and gashed 44-19 by a powerhouse North Alabama team.
Since that letdown, VSU has not only won five straight; it’s established an identity: spread opposing defenses and play opportunistic defense itself. Timeliness is everything with this Blazer team.
Now just a single game separates VSU and UNA at the top of the Gulf South Conference after the Blazers won a 56-27 homecoming thriller over the Delta State Statesmen Saturday.
“We’ve been talking about this the last couple weeks, but there’s five or six teams in this conference that could make that jump,” said Blazers Head Coach Kerwin Bell. “I’ve really liked our attitude the last three or four weeks in practice and I think it’s finally starting to show in the games.”
Homecoming festivities made for a late arriving crowd, but the 5,402 fans didn’t leave disappointed. VSU, which was averaging 46.5 points per game in the last month, scored a season-high 56 courtesy of two special teams scores. It was VSU’s second straight win over its Mississippi rivals.
Trailing 14-7, DSU’s field goal attempt was blocked and returned 84 yards by Donatello Brown. The Statesmen rallied to tie the game, but Gary Simon took a punt 70 yards to the end zone two minutes before intermission.
“We’ve been talking about this every day in practice: I told them if you block, I’ll do the rest for you,” Simon said. “Special teams win games.”
Simon added the team is united with a renewed focus.
“Coach is making us work hard,” he said. “We’re finally coming together as a team. I don’t know what else we can do, man. We’re just focused. Once we started clicking, there’s no more doubting anybody. Now we have to go on to the next game and do the same thing.”
Offensively, Roland Rivers started quickly. He found Dallas Baldner for a 10-yard score on the first drive and found the pylon himself midway through the initial quarter.
After that, the offense performed a disappearing act. The group wouldn’t score again until the first play of the fourth period. Despite having a quick trigger for switching signal callers most of the season, Bell displayed faith in Rivers. But following seven consecutive scoreless drives, Bell went to backup Adam Robles.
The move paid dividends. Robles led four touchdown drives in his late relief appearance. The drives were punctuated twice by freshman running back Cedric Hollingshed, but Robles also tossed two to receivers Stephen Denmark and Anthony Ingram.
“They (VSU receivers) just keep getting better,” Robles said. “At practice we’ve been working a lot with them on route running, recognizing coverage and they’re making more plays. It’s such a benefit because we’re so deep at receiver. We’ve got eight to 10 guys who can go make plays and score touchdowns. When you have that it’s a huge advantage.”
As for the late switch, Bell said he never considered going to Robles earlier than he did. He said there’s no specific strategy how to play the quarterbacks. It’s dependent on the rhythm of the game.
“Adam’s been giving us a great spark off the bench these last few weeks,” Bell said. “When he came in, he really played well.”
VSU was out-gained 477-374 in total yards. The Statesmen have the No. 1 ranked offense in the GSC, but were once again done in by their second-to-last ranked defense.
Running back Chris Robinson tied a school record with six touchdowns in last week’s 55-51 win over West Florida and didn’t disappoint in his follow-up showing. He led DSU in rushing and receiving, collecting 210 total yards and three touchdowns on 23 touches.
Bell praised Robinson and said the Blazers wanted to put the game on DSU quarterback Tyler Sullivan’s shoulders. Sullivan went 14-of-24 for 184 yards while splitting snaps with backup Jabe Burgess. They combined for 360 yards, though the majority of aerial damage came from yards-after-catch. The Blazer defense repeatedly converted timely plays to stall the Statesmen offense.
VSU gathered five sacks. Maurice Fason led the way with a sack and two tackles for loss. Egim Etta-Tawo added another two hits for loss. Kenny Moore led the team with 10 tackles, while Brandon Roe collected eight. With VSU up 35-21 early in the fourth, Raymond Palmer ended a DSU threat by picking a pass and returning it to the six. Andre Johnson also had an interception.
Rivers finished 9-of-21 for 100 yards to go with an air and ground score. Robles went 7-of-12 for 119 and two touchdowns.
VSU’s rushing attack was steady, though unspectacular. The team had 187 yards on 44 attempts. Hollingshed ran 20 times for 45 yards while Jordan Germany had 52 yards on eight carries.
The Blazers sit third in the GSC. Two of their final three games are against Florida Tech and Shorter, a pair of the bottom three teams in the league. Sandwiched in between is a road duel with second place West Alabama, which leads VSU by a half-game in the standings.
Robles said Bell tells the team the season isn’t about peaks and valleys, but rather a weekly incline. With those words drilled into his group, the head coach said rest assured his team won’t overlook the Panthers when it heads to Melbourne, Florida, next weekend.
“No matter who we play, we want to be a better football team at the end of every (practice) week,” Bell said. “We’ve got two tough road games coming up. Florida Tech is a good football team. We’ll be at their place. Then we’ve got a long road trip to West Alabama, which is playing
phenomenal football. We’ve got our work cut out for us but we’re going to believe in our