Turns out, Valdosta State is as good as advertised.
But that didn’t stop the University of West Florida from nearly pulling off an upset of the nation’s No. 1 team Saturday night at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium in Georgia.
A gutsy second-half effort was almost enough to help the 20th-ranked Argonauts overcome a 20-point halftime deficit.
But UWF came up empty on a drive that began near midfield with 4:22 to play. The Blazers then iced the 26-21 victory thanks to a couple of Seth McGill runs.
Winners of 24 consecutive games, the reigning NCAA Division II national champs clinch at least a share of the Gulf South Conference title.
The Argos saw their bid for their first conference crown erased as well as their school-record seven-game winning streak.
Now, UWF finds itself in a must-win situation at home against West Alabama Saturday at to have a shot at the playoffs.
“It’s super tough. It puts us in a tight situation with the playoffs,” UWF wide receiver Quentin Randolph said. “We wanted to make history with a conference championship and we’ve never beaten Valdosta in my four years here. As a senior, it’s tough, but with a lot of young guys watching me, I’m trying to keep it together.”
The Argos (7-2, 6-1) struggled in the first half, managing only five possessions. All five ended in punts. Only once in the half did the Argos get into Blazer territory.
Still, despite the rough start on this cold November night in front of a roaring crowd of 6,002, the score could have been worse than 20-0 at halftime.
It could have been worse had it not been for the defense denying the Blazers (9-0, 7-0) touchdowns twice in the red zone. They were forced to settle for field goals.
“I’m very disappointed we came out and played the way we did on both sides of the ball in the first 30 minutes of the game,” UWF head coach Pete Shinnick said. “I don’t know if I’ve seen us play that poorly in awhile. The good news is we weren’t completely out of it. We had an opportunity to chip away at it.”
And the Argos did chip away at the lead.
A 10-play drive to start the second half ended with Shomari Mason rushing for the first of his two touchdowns on the night. He ran in from 4-yards out to cut the VSU lead to 20-7 with 9:46 left in the third.
Randolph, the former Navarre Raider, then caught his second touchdown of the year, hauling in an 8-yard scoring strike from Austin Reed just over five minutes later. Randolph dove for the ball and snagged it for a score that cut the VSU lead to 20-14.
McGill used a 4-yard run to punch in his second touchdown of the night with 12:25 left in the game, extending the VSU lead to 26-14.
UWF refused to fold.
With their contingent of fans cheering and stomping on the bleachers, the Argos went to work on a 10-play drive that saw Tate Lehtio catch 16-yard pass on fourth-and-9 to keep the drive going.
Three plays later, Mason danced into the end zone on a 6-yard run.
At that point, with 5:53 remaining, the Argos only trailed 26-21 and had renewed hope in a comeback win.
“I felt very good about the second half. That’s the kind of football I think we are capable of playing. That’s the type of team I think we can be,” Shinnick said.
UWF pinned VSU back near its own goal line, forcing a punt that gave it great field position. But three incomplete passes left the Argos with no choice but to punt the ball back. The Blazers then ran out the final 3:33 of the game.
Watching the time run out was tough, but Randolph, speaking on the field after the game, knows Saturday’s regular-season finale is all that matters now.
“We have to put it all on the line. We have to be ready,” Randolph said.
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