By Jim O'Hara
Hawks (4-4, 0-2 GSC) vs. Valdosta State (6-2, 3-1 GSC)
Thursday, Oct. 25 • 7:30 pm ET • Rome, Ga.
ROME -- For the second time in less than a week, the Shorter Hawks will be tasked with taking on what the best the Gulf South Conference has to offer – and then some.
This time, however, they will do it on familiar ground when the Hawks host two-time NCAA Division II national champion Valdosta State on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. at Barron Stadium in what will be Shorter's first-ever GSC home game that will be played in front of a television audience.
"They're just a very, very good Gulf South Conference team," Shorter head coach Phil Jones said about the Blazers, who come to Rome boasting a 6-2 overall record, a 3-1 conference slate and an offense and a defense that has reeled off four straight wins, the latest coming last week thanks to a 49-41 GSC win over Delta State.
"If you're going to have a chance to win, every part of your game has to click," the coach added as the Hawks, who dropped to 4-4 and 0-2 in the conference following a 49-7 loss last week to West Alabama, prepared for the contest that is the GSC-TV Live Game of the Week.
Head coach David Dean's Blazers, whose lone conference loss came West Alabama last month, have clearly shown that they are firing on all cylinders, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
Using a potent mix of the run and the pass, Valdosta – the Blazers were the preseason pick by the coaches to win this year's championship – comes to Rome averaging 493 yards a game that tops the GSC and is ranked No. 7 in the Division II ranks nationally.
"They are really prolific throwing the ball and have a balanced running attack to go with it," Jones pointed out about VSU, which averaged 260 yards through the air and 233 on the ground. "But they're more committed to throwing the ball than anyone we've faced. They have a good scheme."
Operating out of a spread attack that uses multiple formations, the Blazers are led by junior quarterback Cayden Cochran, who has competed 94 of 160 passes (with just three interceptions) for 1,294 yards and 13 touchdowns, and is a threat to run as well as he has rushed for 229 yards and five touchdowns.
For added measure, VSU has the depth behind center as sophomore Graham Craig has thrown for 742 more yards and 10 TDs.
Giving the Blazers the targets to throw to are three receivers that Jones quickly said "are tall and very, very good" – 6-foot-4 Seantavious Jones, 6-3 Gerald Ford and 6-2 Regginald Lewis.
Jones, who has 27 catches for 535 yards and nine touchdowns, is coming off a solid performance against Delta State when he grabbed nine passes for 210 yards and four TDs that earned him GSC Offensive Player of the Week honors; Ford leads the team with 40 receptions for 703 yards and nine scores; and Lewis has accumulated 411 yards on 31 catches, two of those going into the end zone.
What has been a pleasant surprise for the Blazers has been the addition of a pair of freshmen running backs who have given the team a deadly 1-2 mirror-image punch. Austin Scott has rushed for 643 yards on 101 carries and five touchdowns, while Cedric O'Neal has been given the ball 98 times and has rambled for 611 yards and five TDs.
Not surprisingly, the yards and the 42-points-per-game production has come behind an offensive line that is big and experienced with three seniors who earned All-GSC status last year serving a solid anchors: guard Edmund Kugbila (6-5, 347 pounds), and tackles Mesh Wokomaty (6-7, 283) and Ryan Schraeder (6-7, 300.)
"We feel that we've got to pressure the quarterback and make him throw when he doesn't want to and at the same time have great coverage," Jones said about what the Hawks are tasked with to defend the Blazers. "We want to make them inconsistent when they have the ball."
Even better, Jones points out, is that the best way to keep Valdosta's offense off the field is for the Hawks to keep the ball offensively as much as they can.
"We have to maintain ball control," the Su coach said, "hold on to the ball and have some big production plays."
Lining up against the Hawks is a Valdosta defense that bases itself out of a 4-3 look and has been stingy to opposing teams, allowing just 139 yards rushing and 205 yards passing per game.
All-GSC linebacker Chris Pope has been the main stopping force for VSU having collected a team-high 63 tackles; linebacker Jeremy Grable has 52 tackles, 6 tackles for losses and two sacks; and linebacker Ryan Smith has 42 tackles, 5.5 TFL and a pair of sacks.
Cornerback Lance Holder leads the Blazers' secondary with three interceptions while Isaiah Gresham has two picks.
"They're good at it," Jones said of the VSU defense, "and have been recruiting players to play that defense."
The game marks the second time Valdosta State has played at Barron, having played Division II power Carson-Newman in 1997 in the inaugural Nick Hyder Classic that used to be held in Rome.
Shorter, however, is not about to back down heading into the game – it's also SU's "Championship Thursday" in which last year's national and conference championship teams will be honor – that will be played under the lights and in front of a television audience.
"Our kids are intense about making things happen," said Jones, "and continue to work as hard as they can to do that."
TV NOTES: The game will be televised live on Comcast Cable Channel 35 or in high definition (where available) on Comcast Cable Channel 805 in the Rome and Atlanta areas, and ESPN will also provide live coverage on ESPN3. The GSC-TV Live Game of the Week is carried by CSS, which provides the live broadcast to 6.5 million households; on Mediacom, which airs the games live in parts of South Georgia, the Florida Panhandle, southwest Alabama and parts of Mississippi; and in a delayed airing on CoxSportsTV, which includes Macon.