VALDOSTA — Besides punter Jack Fulford, Valdosta State cornerback Matt Pierce has the most starts of any player on the Blazer roster.
On Saturday, Pierce’s experience came up huge for the Blazers, as the junior defensive back recorded two key interceptions in VSU’s 22-21 victory over the West Alabama Tigers.
Pierce’s second interception was the game changer, intercepting a Karl Birkenfeld pass and returning it 85 yards for the Blazers’ go-ahead touchdown with 5:25 remaining in the fourth quarter.
“I caught the route earlier in the game, and when the receiver tightened down his splits, I had a feeling that’s who (West Alabama) was going to go to,” Pierce said. “It was a big play. One thing I can remember when I caught it was I could hear the crowd noise elevate. It is one I’ll remember forever.”
With the victory, Valdosta State improved its record to 6-1 on the season and 1-0 in Gulf South Conference play. They join the Valwood Valiants as the only other Valdosta-based team to win a game this weekend.
Pierce’s fourth quarter interception wasn’t the only one that led to a score, as his second quarter interception was also returned 35 yards for a Blazer touchdown.
Pierce will likely garner Gulf South Conference Player of the Week honors for his performance in the victory.
“Well if he (doesn’t win), it would be a travesty, or someone else really played an outstanding football game,” Valdosta State head coach David Dean said. “(Matt) had two huge plays.”
Pierce’s performance was huge, as the Blazer defense was unable to slow down the Tiger offense for much of the afternoon, while the Valdosta State offense was hurt by penalties throughout.
“It seems like when we have penalties, we have them back-to-back-to-back,” Dean said. “I came over to the sidelines and said, ‘Guys it is really hard to call plays when it is third and 35.’”
West Alabama running back Matt Willis became the first back to gain over 200 yards in a game against Valdosta State since 2008, a span of 65 games. He finished the day with 219 yards on 31 carries.
“Well (Willis) is a great football player,” Dean said. “He is hard to tackle. He is a bowling ball. He has done that all year long. If you watch him on film, he just breaks tackles.”
West Alabama finished the game with 420 yards of total offense.
As for the Blazers, offensive production was hard to come by. Besides VSU’s opening drive of the game, which was capped off with a Reggie Lewis reverse touchdown pass to Scott Fambrough, the Blazer offense accounted for just a second quarter Daniel Andersen field goal, three punts and two turnover on downs, both of which came in the second half.
“I said earlier in the week that we were going to have to work for every single yard we got, and we did,” Valdosta State quarterback Cayden Cochran said. “It was all about (getting the) win.”
Cochran finished the game 22 of 32 for 144 yards, with a first quarter interception, in his first career start for the Blazers. On the day, Valdosta State managed just 278 yards of offense.
“There was no go for 300 passing, run for 200, throw how many touchdowns,” Cochran said. “It was (all about) winning, and with us winning today, I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
Cochran left the game for a play in the third quarter after, what he said, was shortness of breath after taking a big hit along the UWA sideline. Backup Brett Whitmire replaced Cochran, as senior Austen Roberts is out with an injured shoulder, despite Dean saying all week that Roberts would start the game.
The Tigers opened the game’s scoring, using a quick six-play, 69-yard drive to begin the game. A Willis 6-yard run capped off the drive. Willis gained 65 yards rushing on the drive.
Valdosta State quickly responded, connecting on the Lewis to Fambrough 46-yard touchdown connection. The Blazer response took just three plays and 53 seconds off the clock.
VSU added to its lead a few drives later behind Andersen’s 28-yard field goal, which made the score 10-7.
The Blazers’ largest lead of the game came behind Pierce’s first interception, which came with just 2:30 left in the opening half. The score gave Valdosta State a 16-7 lead. The extra point kick was missed wide left.
West Alabama started its comeback towards the end of the first half. The Tigers were able to strike with just 30 seconds left. UWA freshman quarterback Kyle Caldwell found wide receiver Ken May for a 21-yard touchdown connection, reducing VSU’s halftime lead to just 16-14.
The Tigers regained the lead near the end of the third quarter, after gaining possession of the ball following a Valdosta State turnover on downs. Gerald Worsham scored on a 9-yard reverse, propelling the Tigers out in front, 21-16.
Following back-to-back unsuccessful Blazer offensive drives, the Tigers were driving down the field for what seemed like a late score, which might have put the game out of reach. The drive came to a screeching halt with Pierce’s interception.
With the victory, Valdosta State will now turn its attention towards rival Delta State, as the two teams will look to remain unbeaten in GSC play next Saturday night in Cleveland, Miss. The Blazers haven’t defeated Delta State since 2005.
With his first quarter touchdown pass, Reggie Lewis became the third different Blazer to toss a touchdown pass this season.
Saturday was Homecoming for the Valdosta State University. Alumni from the university were in attendance, although the game crowd was just 6,961.
With the win, Valdosta State improves its all-time record to 28-2 against the Tigers.
Jack Fulford recorded a 69-yard punt in the second quarter. The punt was a career-high.
Before the game, members of the 2010 Blazer football team were honored with their championship rings from their 2010 Gulf South Conference tri-championship.
West Alabama’s Matt Willis broke rushed for 219 yards on the day, becoming the first opposing rusher to break 200 yards against Valdosta State since 2008.
Up next, Valdosta State travels to Cleveland, Miss to take on the Delta State Statesmen, who are expected to take over as the No. 1 team in the country.