The Valdosta State football team is just two wins away from a third national championship.
The Blazers advanced to the Division II national semifinals with a commanding 48-26 win over Carson-Newman in the national quarterfinals on Saturday at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium.
The Blazers will face Minnesota State-Mankato next weekend in the national semifinals. Late Saturday night, the NCAA announced the game will be played in Blakeslee Stadium on the campus of MSU-Mankato. Kickoff is set for 3 p.m. Eastern on Saturday.
“I’m really proud of these young men, with the way they played today,” Valdosta State head coach David Dean said. “We beat a very good football team, a football team that I consider to be one of the top Division II football programs year in and year out. So it gives great satisfaction to not only line up against those guys but to walk off as victors.”
Led by a dominating rushing performance from true freshman Cedric O’Neal, who finished with 194 yards on 15 carries and three touchdowns, Valdosta State racked up 525 yards of total offense, the second-most in a postseason game in school history.
With his impressive performance Saturday, O’Neal became the first 1,000-yard rushing back at Valdosta State since Michael Terry ran for over 1,100 yards in 2007. O’Neal is now seventh in rushing yards in a single season at Valdosta State with 1,055 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns, the second-most in a single season.
“That is amazing,” O’Neal said. “My offensive linemen give great blocks (and) Coach Dean calls the right plays at the right time.”
Much like last week, Valdosta State played dominant defense in the second half, limiting Carson-Newman to 392 yards of total offense on the day, and just 152 yards in the second half. Linebacker Chris Pope finished with 21 tackles, the second-most in a single game at Valdosta State.
“I’ve got a really good d-line in front of me,” Pope said. “They said, ‘We are going to keep the linemen off of you and it’s just your plays to make.’ And they did their job and all I had to do was make the tackles.”
Trailing 26-21 just over halfway through the third quarter, Valdosta State ran a fake punt with up-back Trokon Gaye on fourth-and-4 at the Blazer 37-yard line. Gaye broke outside of the Eagles’ defense and ran 35 yards down the field, before being tackled at the Carson-Newman 22-yard line. Three plays later, Cochran connected with Chris Anderson on a 20-yard scoring play, giving Valdosta State a 28-26 lead.
“On third down, I switched over to the defensive side (of the radio) and told those guys that if we didn’t make the first down, that we were going to fake it at that time,” Dean said. “I felt like we needed some excitement on our sideline. We needed a spark. The guys did a great job. That was a big difference in the game.”
The fake play was the second of the year that Gaye successfully ran. In the Blazers’ 43-10 rout of Angelo State at Cowboys Stadium in September, Gaye caught a pass from punter Daniel Andersen.
“It is special,” said Gaye, who was suspended the first two games of the season. “It is something I try to work hard for all the time. Whenever my opportunity comes, I try to take advantage of it.”
The Blazers’ fake punt and score on that possession changed the course of the football game. From there, the Blazers scored on their next three possessions, while holding Carson-Newman to a turnover on downs — coming on a fake punt that the Blazers sniffed out — a fumble and another turnover on downs.
O’Neal started the fourth quarter with a 3-yard touchdown run, scooping up a fumbled snap by Cochran, to get into the end zone and extend the Blazers’ lead to 34-26.
Then, Cochran found Quin Roberson on a 29-yard touchdown pass to put the Blazers ahead 41-26. On the play, Cochran took advantage of great blocking up front and found Roberson standing in the corner of the end zone with no defenders within 10 yards.
O’Neal iced the game the following possession, scoring on a 16-yard run with 6:29 remaining.
“Those guys never give up,” Dean said. “It is fun to go over to the sideline after a possession and just look at their eyes, because if we score, or if we turn the ball over, their focus is the same. Their demeanor never changes, and that is a lot of fun to coach.”
Valdosta State raced out to a 14-3 lead in the first quarter. After Carson-Newman took a 3-0 lead on its opening possession, the Blazers used a 10-play, 90-yard drive, capped off by a 1-yard touchdown run by Cochran, to take a 7-3 lead. Then, after the Blazer defense held Carson-Newman on fourth-and-inches, O’Neal broke loose for a 46-yard touchdown run to make the score 14-3.
The Eagles fought back, though. After forcing a punt, which was downed at the 3-yard line, Carson-Newman put together an impressive 15-play, 97-yard touchdown drive, which included back-to-back third down conversions, to cut the Blazers’ lead to 14-10.
After a Blazer punt, the Eagles took the lead on their following offensive play, making the score 17-14.
Carson-Newman added another field goal and took a 20-14 lead off a Cochran interception. Then, with the minutes winding down in the first half, O’Neal carried the Blazers down the field and into the red zone.
Once in the red zone, Carson-Newman forced the Blazers into a fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line. After the teams swapped timeouts, Cochran was stuffed on a quarterback sneak attempt, and the Blazers turned over possession of the ball.
In the second half, Carson-Newman notched a pair of field goals on its first two possessions, and then was held to limited production in the second half. Meanwhile, the Blazers opened their second half scoring with a 37-yard touchdown strike from Cochran to Seantavious Jones.
As the Blazers prepare for their semifinal matchup against Minnesota State-Mankato, The Valdosta Daily Times will have complete coverage of the week, with at least one story per day.
Blazers beat Carson-Newman 48-26, face MSU-Mankato next
The Valdosta State football team is just two wins away from a third national championship.
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