FLORENCE — North Alabama appeared on the verge of being blown out Saturday night at Braly Stadium as Valdosta State opened up a 24-point lead early in the third quarter.
The odds of a comeback appeared slim as the Lions’ offense hadn’t come close to scoring a touchdown and the defense was wearing down.
But with freshmen quarterback Luke Wingo leading the way, the offense started to click and UNA pulled to within three points with just less four minutes remaining.
Valdosta State, though, spoiled the comeback with four first downs to run out the clock to claim a 24-21 Gulf South Confernce victory Satuday night. The loss ended UNA’s four-game winning streak.
“It was just a case of too little, too late for us,” said Wingo, who threw for 227 yards and one touchdown. “We got down but everyone stayed positive and the crowd really got into it. That was a lot of fun — it just would have been so much more fun if we had won it.”
Nothing much went right for UNA (5-2, 2-1 GSC) until late in the third quarter. Valdosta State (5-2, 2-1) hit long touchdown passes on its second play of each half in building the 24-0 lead.
UNA had two scoring opportunities at that point, but both ended in missed field goals.
“We missed a few opportunities and gave up some big plays on defense at the first of the game and the start of the third quarter,” coach Bobby Wallace said. “But those things are going to happen when you’re playing a lot of freshman.
“I’m real proud of our team for fighting for 60 minutes and not giving up. I think we stuck together as a team and that is so important.”
UNA got its first score when
Lamonte Thompson ran through a pair of defenders on a 7-yard touchdown run that made it 24-7 with 7:07 to go in the third quarter.
Wingo led the Lions on a 10-play, 81-yard scoring drive early in the fourth quarter. Wingo sparked the drive with completions of 30 yards to Daniel Almon and 36 yards to Brandon Warren, and he found Jason Smith, who made an over-the shoulder catch in the corner of the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown that trimmed the margin to 24-14 with 8:25 left.
UNA forced a three-and-out and the offense drove for another score with Wingo running a keeper 8 yards to pull the Lions within three points at 24-21 with 3:56 remaining.
“I really thought we were going to pull it out,” Smith said. “We started making plays and our defense was playing great; It was really all coming together.”
Valdosta State took over at its 25 on the kickoff. The Blazers faced a third-and-9 from the 26 but gained five yards when UNA jumped off sides. Cedric O’Neal then gained five yards on a third-and-four play for the first down. The Blazers followed with three more first downs to run out the clock.
“We were just trying to get off the field and we couldn’t do it,” linebacker Brian Barnett said. “Give credit to Valdosta State because they are really good, but we have to do a better job stopping the run.”
Wallace said he didn’t second guess himself for not trying on onside kick in the final minutes.
“If I had known we wouldn’t stop them I would have tried an onside kick, but we had three timeouts and there was plenty of time left,” Wallace said. “The penalty also hurt us, but that’s the way it goes.”
The Blazers dominated the first half. Cayden Cochran hit Gerald Ford for an 81-yard touchdown pass on the second offensive snap. Valdosta State added a 51-yard field goal from Daniel Anderson late in the first quarter and a 1-yard sneak by Cochran to increase their lead to 17-0.
A 71-yard touchdown pass from Cochran to Seantavious Jones on the second play of the second half extended lead to 24-0.
“We couldn’t get anything going until late in the third quarter,” Smith said. “We just dug ourselves too deep a hole.”
Jeff McIntyre can be reached at 256-740-5737 or jeff.mcintyre@TimesDaily.com.