The Valdosta Daily Times
Graham Craig proved the Valdosta State Blazers have a viable weapon at the backup quarterback position.
Craig, who made his first career start Saturday night in the absence of Cayden Cochran, tossed five touchdown passes and ran for another to lead the 20th-ranked Blazers to 561 yards of total offense and a dominating 62-14 win over Fort Valley State.
“The big thing that (Craig) did was that he stepped up and was a leader out on the field,” Valdosta State head coach David Dean said. “There was a lot of questions if he was going to be able to do what he did tonight, with the pressure that was going to be brought against him snap after snap, and I think he proved he could stand in there and take a shot and complete passes.”
Saturday’s win ended Valdosta State’s four-game losing streak and marked the Blazers’ first victory since Oct. 15, 2011. It also showed the rest of the country the Blazers are back.
“There is no question, losing sucks,” Dean said. “Whenever you get the opportunity to win a ball game, no matter who you’re playing, that is always fun. Any time I walk off the field with a smile, it is because we won.
“(Our players) wanted to prove they are a good football team, and that they are not going to let folks come back on them any more,” said Dean of Blazers’ blowout win. “That is one thing we did, as coaches, each day, was challenge them to prepare for that opportunity — to lay the hammer down and keep the pedal down. They did exactly what we asked them to do.”
Wide receiver Gerald Ford led the way with five catches for 152 yards and three touchdowns in his first game at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium since the end of the 2010 season.
“It was a great way to bounce back,” Ford said. “We have bigger things on our mind. This is just a stepping stone to the bigger goal. So we just take it one step at a time.”
Seantavious Jones and Regginald Lewis also had touchdown catches, while Quin Roberson added a 94-yard punt return, a school-record, late in the fourth quarter.
Freshman running back Cedric O’Neal and junior backup quarterback Justin Roberts each added rushing touchdowns in the win.
Craig finished the night 10 of 22 for 314 yards, with five touchdowns and two interceptions. The five touchdown passes is the most for a Valdosta State quarterback since Willie Copeland tossed six touchdown passes in a winning effort in 2007.
“I had the easy job,” Craig said. “I just got it to the receivers (and) they made some awesome plays. We knew (Fort Valley) was going to come out and man us up a lot, and the receivers had a challenge and just played great.”
O’Neal racked up 131 yards rushing on just 10 carries, including his second quarter touchdown, in his first collegiate game. Austin Scott finished with 57 yards on 14 carries.
The Blazer defense was impressive Saturday night, forcing five turnovers, all interceptions. Senior Matt Pierce led the way with two interceptions. Isaiah Gresham, Lance Holder and Xavier Crane each had interceptions on the night.
“It feels good,” Pierce said. “I think it feels good for the coaches, the players and the community to just know that the defense isn’t slacking up and that we are trying everything we can out there. And when you have a performance like that, it is always good.”
“There was a lot of trash talking before the game, and after the disappointing loss to Saginaw, we wanted to make sure we came out with a lot of intensity,” Pierce continued.
Fort Valley State opened the scoring in the first quarter with an 80-yard touchdown connection from Antonio Henton to Chris Slaughter, making the score 7-0.
The Blazers had a quick response, and a large one, too. Valdosta State scored on its next four possessions to grab a 27-7 second quarter lead.
Craig hit Jones for a 77-yard touchdown connection to start the Blazers’ scoring, which was followed by back-to-back touchdown connections with Ford (a 36-yard and a 12-yard connection). Craig and Ford’s second touchdown connection was set up by Gresham’s interception.
After another interception, this time by Holder, Craig got the Blazers back into the end zone with a 5-yard touchdown run, making the score 27-7.
“They scored that one and we just stayed calm,” Craig said. “We knew our defense was going to hold them up. We had confidence in them and we had confidence in ourselves.”
Fort Valley State got back onto the scoreboard later in the second quarter when Jabioas Glenn intercepted a Craig pass and returned it 36 yards for the score.
Just like the first time the Wildcats scored, the Blazers had a strong response. O’Neal broke free for a 57-yard touchdown run, capping off a quick three-play, 80-yard drive to give the Blazers a 34-14 lead.
Both offensive units got sloppy late in the second quarter. Following O’Neal’s touchdown run, the teams combined for four turnovers across the final 3:55, including another Craig interception and a fumble by O’Neal.
Fort Valley was unable to capitalize on the turnovers, and was held without points.
In the second half, it didn’t take long for Craig to find the end zone or his favorite target on the night. Craig and Ford connected for their third scoring connection of the night with a 50-yard pass across the middle, making the score 41-14.
To cap off his night, Craig connected with Lewis on another 50-yard touchdown, his third TD pass that exceeded 50 yards. Lewis raced down the sideline and received a big block from Griffin Roelle to spring the score.
After holding the Wildcats to a punt, Roberson got in on the action, breaking loose for a Valdosta State school-record 94-yard punt return, the Blazers’ eighth score of the night.
Justin Roberts capped off the scoring with a 23-yard touchdown run. Roberts led the Blazers 94 yards down the field in the fourth quarter for their final touchdown of the night.
At halftime of Saturday’s game, the Valdosta State softball team received its national championship rings. The softball team won the school’s first women’s sports national championship in May.
Despite rainy conditions, Saturday’s attendance was 5,298.