FLORENCE — The word ‘fun’ comes up often when North Alabama tackle Will Furlong talks about playing Valdosta State.
A four-year senior, Furlong has been through many battles against the Blazers. He gets one more opportunity when UNA (5-1, 2-0 GSC) hosts Valdosta State (4-2, 1-1) on Saturday at 6 p.m.
“You always find another gear when you play Delta State, Valdosta State or West Alabama,” Furlong said. “Everything is knocked up a notch against Valdosta. It’s going to be a huge test for us, but it’s going to be fun.”
Much was expected from the Valdosta State this season. The Blazers returned 19 starters, including 10 on offense, and were picked to win the Gulf South Conference championship.
The Blazers dropped their first game to Saginaw Valley and lost their first conference game to West Alabama. Despite those losses, coach Bobby Wallace said Valdosta State has as good of personnel as any team in the conference.
“They are the best team I’ve seen on film all year — bar none,” Wallace said. “They probably shouldn’t have lost the two games they did. From a talent standpoint they are as good as I’ve seen.”
After struggling offensively the past two seasons, Valdosta State is back to the high-scoring team it traditionally has been. The Blazers lead the conference in total offense (483.2 ypg), rushing offense (244.2 ypg), passing offense (239.0 ypg) and scoring offense (42.8 ppg.).
Valdosta’s strength is up front where all five starters on the offensive line are seniors. Tackles Mesh Wokomaty and Ryan Schraeder, along with guard Edmund Kugbila were all first-team All-GSC performers in 2011. The Blazers also have a tall group of wide receivers, including junior Gerald Ford, who leads the conference in receiving (28 catches, 476 yards, 8 TDs).
Cayden Cochran and Graham Craig have split time at quarterback, while freshman Austin Scott ranks second in the GSC in rushing with 546 yards.
“Their offensive line has five seniors and the two tackles are both 6-foot-7,” Wallace said. “They have four game-breaking wide receivers and each one is 6-2 or taller.
“They know how to spread you out with the quick screens and get the ball to their athletes. They don’t throw the ball down the field as much as they just get it to their athletes and let them make something happen. It’s going to be a big challenge for our defense, and a challenge for our offense to keep their offense off the field and try to match them when they do score.”
With two losses and one conference loss, the Blazers are in a must-win situation. The game is also big for UNA, which is tied for first place in the GSC standings with West Alabama.
“With only five conference games every one is that much bigger,” Furlong said. “We’re going to do everything we can to win the game and that’s all we can do. We can’t start looking ahead.
“This game is everything to us. It’s the biggest game of the year so far. It’s going to be a good fight.”
Wallace understands the importance of the game, but he doesn’t want his many young players getting too hyped for the showdown.
“Some games seem bigger than others and this is one of them, so we’ll see how our young guys respond to that,” Wallace said. “We just want to go out and continue to play the way we’ve been playing.”
Jeff McIntyre can be reached at 256-740-5737 or jeff.mcintyre@TimesDaily.com.