The VSU football team didn’t know if they’d get another game at home in the playoffs following the first round of the NCAA Division II Football Playoffs.
However, an upset in their bracket has gifted the No. 3-seed Blazers (12-1) an opportunity to punch their ticket to the semifinals Saturday at home against the No. 4-seed Lenoir-Rhyne Bears (12-1).
“I think we thrive for the opportunity to protect The Baze,” Blazers’ head coach Tremaine Jackson said. “To play a really good football team and have them come to you. It doesn’t make it easier, but it does give you some relief about travel and things of that nature that you don’t have to deal with.”
Saturday will mark VSU’s third matchup against Lenoir-Rhyne, with the other two matchups having also come in the postseason. The Blazers defeated the Bears 61-21 in their last meeting in 2018 en route to their fourth national championship.
The Bears enter the game coming off a 35-25 road win over No. 1-seed Benedict in the second round.
Meanwhile, the Blazers are coming off a 38-31 win over No. 2-seed Delta State last weekend in a rematch between the co- Gulf South Conference champions. The Statesmen defeated the Blazers in their regular season matchup 49-25.
“When you got an opportunity to beat a Gulf South team in general, it’s a big deal,” Jackson said. “Especially in a playoff atmosphere, especially when you add the co-champions onto it and are kind of trying to figure out who the real champion is. We had a chance to prove that on the football field. I’m really proud of our kids because I felt like we were different this time around. It kind of just showed that we were built just a little bit different than we were the first time we played them.”
The win not only avenged VSU’s lone loss of the season but had a dramatic conclusion.
VSU raced out to a 21-7 lead and had to watch as Delta State outscored the Blazers 24-7 to take a 31-28 lead in the fourth quarter.
Still, the Blazers drove down the field to tie the game in the final three minutes. After the defense forced a three and out, junior quarterback Sammy Edwards led the offense down the field and delivered a 24-yard strike to graduate wide receiver B.K. Smith for the game-winning touchdown with just nine seconds left in the game.
Even with the thrilling win, Jackson believes his team has quickly moved on.
“I think people around us are probably more emotional about that than we are,” Jackson said. “When we got into this playoff — this new season, as we call it — we decided that we were just going to live in that moment and one game at a time. Win, and we’ll just move on. Obviously, if we had lost, we know what would have happened. We just kind of put it to a one-game deal, and our kids moved on. They moved on on Sunday.”
The Bears will pose a much different challenge.
Lenoir-Rhyne bring one of the best defenses in the country into Valdosta. On the season, the Bears have given up just 12.2 points per game, good for fourth in Division II.
Jackson noted that the Bears were at or near the top in most major defensive categories. That includes turnovers gained, where they are tied for 25th with 23 turnovers forced.
“They fly around. They got really big people up front, and they get off blocks well,” Jackson said. “They can cover, and they can run. You’re talking about a team that’s averaging three points a quarter, and so they do a really good job of getting after you. They take the ball away from you. We got to make sure we’re taking care of the football and play our complete game.”
The Blazers will once again lean on Edwards and the passing game. Edwards was named one of the nine finalists for the 2023 Harlon Hill Trophy — an award given to the top Division II football player — Wednesday.
The VSU signal caller is ranked second in the country in passing yards with 4,080 yards. Edwards has also tossed 33 passing touchdowns against nine interceptions on the year.
Despite that, Jackson says Edwards has remained cool through it all.
“Sammy’s a really mature guy. People don’t know that about him,” Jackson said. “He’s not as talkative as some of our other guys. He believes it’s a team award. I saw him thank his offensive coordinator and the coaching staff and then the players and the program. He never lets that stuff get to his head. He’s an even keel guy.”
The Blazers, for the second straight week, will be tasked with slowing down a high-powered Lenoir-Rhyne offense. Their balanced offensive attack has the Bears ranked 14th in the country in scoring offense with 39.8 points per game.
What most concerns Jackson, though, is the Bears’ trickeration on offense.
“As they get closer to the red zone, they get a little tricky, and then the trickery comes out with the throwback passes to the tight end to the fake jet sweeps to passes by the receiver,” Jackson said. “We got to really play with our eyes. They force you to play a great game with your eyes. We got to win the matchups.”
Jackson also credited the Bears for their ability to take care of the football.
“I think they’re plus-14 in turnover margin this year, which is a lot,” Jackson said. “It explains why they’re 12-1, and we got to be ready to face that.”
Written by Austin Bruce, Co-Editor in Chief . Photo courtesy of Austin Bruce.