UNIVERSITY CENTER, MIch. — It happened again.
After three-straight final-minute losses to closeout the 2011 season, the Valdosta State football team lost another heartbreaker Saturday to open its 2012 season.
The Blazers allowed a game-winning 27-yard touchdown pass from Saginaw Valley State quarterback Jonathon Jennings to Michael Albrecht with 1:01 remaining to fall to the Cardinals, 28-24.
The loss is the fourth straight for Valdosta State, dating back to the end of last season. All four game-winning touchdowns scored by the opposing teams came with a combined 2 minutes and 43 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. Saturday’s 1:01 was the largest margin of time remaining in a game.
“We are pretty frustrated right now, because we worked hard,” said linebacker Chris Pope, who led the Blazers with 16 total tackles. “This isn’t where we intended to be, but I promise we will be back.”
VSU’s four-game losing streak is the longest since the 1990 season, when the Blazers dropped the final four games of the regular season to finish with a 5-5 record.
“There is tremendous amount of disappointment,” Valdosta State head coach David Dean said. “Everybody is kind of in shock, ‘how could this happen again?’ But the real leadership, I think you’ll find on the rest of this trip home and (Sunday) when we get back together and watch film and get in the weight room and start preparing for Fort Valley State.”
Following Saginaw Valley’s go-ahead touchdown with 1:01 remaining, the Blazers had a final chance, but fell short. A solid kickoff return by Matt Pierce positioned the Blazers at the 46-yard line. A 19-yard pass from quarterback Graham Craig, who entered the game in the third quarter for starter Cayden Cochran, to Gerald Ford put the Blazers down to the Cardinal 35.
Then Craig was sacked, followed by an overthrown pass to Ford, setting up a third and 15 for the Blazers, which was nearly intercepted by a Cardinal defender. On the Blazers’ final chance, a fourth and 15, Craig’s pass went threw the outstretched arms of Regginald Lewis in the end zone.
Game over. Blazers lose, again.
The Cardinal’s game-winning drive almost didn’t happened. With VSU leading 24-21 and with time ticking off the clock, the Blazers regained possession of the ball off a Tyler Josey interception, and started a march down the field to hopefully ice the game.
After back-to-back first downs, the offense faced a third down and 10. Craig rolled around and took off for the first down marker, sliding just inches short. With the ball just inside Saginaw territory, Dean elected to take a five-yard delay of game penalty and punt the ball to the Cardinals.
That was followed by Jennings’ game-winning 11-play, 80-yard drive, which includes a completion on fourth down and 10, that ended in the 27-yard connection with Albrecht.
“It’s very frustrating,” Dean said. “You put yourself in a position to win, and we can’t make a play at the end of the game. If we get a first down there, we have an excellent play with the draw, (Craig) falls down a half-yard short lunging to get the first down. And we just can’t make a stop on fourth down there late.”
Jennings finished the game 37 of 56 for 378 yards with four touchdowns. He was also intercepted three times by the Blazer defense. Junior Jeff Janis hauled in 14 catches for 167 yards with three scores.
“They are a good tandem,” Pope said. “You can tell they practice a lot together. (Jennings) made a few good plays…We just have to finish. That is all we can do.”
For Valdosta State, Cochran started the game at quarterback, completing 8 of 16 passes for 66 yards. He was pulled at halftime after it was discovered late in the first half that he separated his non-throwing shoulder diving into the end zone for the Blazers’ first touchdown of the game — a 24-yard run that put VSU out front, 7-0.
Craig completed 12 of 19 passes for 183 yards with a score in relief.
“Cayden separated his shoulder,” Dean said. “He couldn’t play. That is the only thing we could do. I felt bad for Cayden. He wanted to play. He couldn’t do. He hurt it on the touchdown. He kept playing, kept fighting. He couldn’t squeeze that ball.”
“I knew I was going in the second half,” Craig said. “We ran the system well. I got the ball in playmakers’ hands, the offensive line blocked well. I don’t really know much. I know Cayden was hurting a little bit.”
The Blazers opened the scoring on their second offensive possession of the day when Cochran scampered into the end zone his 24-yard run, flipping into the air as he broke the plane and separating his shoulder in the process.
A few series later, Saginaw Valley found the end zone on a 2-yard touchdown pass from Jennings to Janis that was setup by a Cochran fumble in Blazer territory.
Valdosta State regained the lead with a 4-yard touchdown run by freshman back Austin Scott late in the second quarter. The scoring play was setup by a Pope fumble recovery deep inside Saginaw Valley territory.
Scott finished the game with 103 yards rushing on 18 carries with his score.
With less than a minute remaining in the first half, and with no timeouts, the Cardinals evened the score with an impressive 6-play, 61-yard touchdown drive that was capped off with a 22-yard pass from Jennings to Janis.
Saginaw Valley took its first lead of the game with a six-play, 60-yard drive, capped off by a 24-yard touchdown by from Jennings to Janis, making the score 21-14.
The Cardinals’ lead lasted just 33 seconds, as Craig found Seantavious Jones for a 70-yard touchdown pass that knotted the score even at 21-21.
After a Cardinal punt, the Blazers regained the lead with a 32-yard field goal by Daniel Andersen.
On the night, VSU’s defense forced four turnovers (three interceptions and fumble). Matt Pierce, Ryan Smith and Josey each had interceptions, while Pope recovered the lone fumble that setup Scott’s touchdown run.
Valdosta State’s offense came out with a quick start. Scott moved the Blazers across the 50-yard line on the first play with a 35-yard rush. A few passes from Cochran to Ford and VSU was 70 yards down the field and into the red zone, where a sack and an overthrown pass forced the Blazers to settle for a 27-yard field that was pushed left by Daniel Andersen.
Following Cochran’s touchdown run on the second offensive possession, the Blazer offense stalled for the remainder of the first half, turning over possession on downs inside Cardinal territory, punting three times and turning the ball over on Cochran’s fumble that led to the Cardinals’ first score of the night.
The Blazer offense seemed rejuvenated in the second half under Craig’s leadership at quarterback. Craig led the Blazers to scores on two of their first three drives in the second half, including his 70-yard pass connection with Jones.
“I was excited for sure,” said Craig of his touchdown pass. “I was fired up.”