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Football Holds off ASU to Claim 21-13 Victory in Season Opener

Posted at 12:25 AM, Sep 06, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-05 20:31:23-04

ALBANY, Ga. - The Valdosta State defense came up with a surplus of big plays to hold Albany State at bay, and   Cedric O'Neal put up a gutsy effort late in the contest to help lead the Blazers to a 21-13 win over the Golden Rams in Saturday's season opener in Albany, Ga.

The Blazers scored within the first five minutes of the contest after three completions from senior transfer, EJ Hilliard who finished his first game with 20 completions and 206 passing yards in 36 attempts. The series of completions took the Blazers inside the 10 yard line to set up O'Neal for a nine yard touchdown carry to cap off VSU's first drive of the season.

 Austin Scott added to the Blazers' rushing attack in the first quarter with 40 yards on the ground, and while VSU was turned away repeatedly throughout the majority of the first half, the Black Swarm defense retained a lead for the red and black.

Albany State's first real threat came early in the second quarter when Caleb Edmonds hooked up with Jessie Atkins for a 30 yard pass play. The big gain put the Golden Rams in VSU territory for the first time in the game, but  Malcolm McClenton  negated ASU's opportunity four plays later with an interception at the VSU 31.  

The pick was the first of two critical second-quarter turnovers for the Golden Rams, as senior Peter Tulloch came up with another interception for the Blazers at the 4:40 mark in the first half. Tulloch's first career interception denied yet another scoring opportunity for Albany State, and gave the Blazers possession at their own 7-yard line.

The turnover set the stage for a huge drive for Valdosta State in which the Blazers covered 93 yards and capped off a 15 play drive with a 28 yard touchdown pass to Dallas Baldner. The score, which came with less than one minute to play in the first half and put the Blazers in front 14-0, represented the longest passing play of the night for Hilliard and marked his first passing touchdown with Valdosta State.

In the second half, the Albany State defense forced a three-and-out before stringing together a 4:54 drive that took the Golden Rams deep into Blazer territory. The drive featured a series of runs by ASU running back Jarvis Smalls and carried ASU inside Valdosta State's 5-yard line, but a fourth down situation came up empty for the Golden Rams, as the Blazer defense stepped up to the challenge again to force an incompletion by Edmonds and a turnover on downs.

ASU took advantage of another opportunity on the attack midway through the third quarter with a 53 yard drive that lasted 2:03 and was punctuated by a 35 yard touchdown pass to Yancey Burns, who finished the night with 85 receiving yards. Following the score for ASU, a botched extra point attempt left the Blazers in front 14-6.

With just seconds to go in the third quarter and ASU facing a third down in their own territory,   Jaleel Brown caught up with Edmonds in the backfield to force a fourth down and tally one of three sacks for VSU on the night. The play ended the quarter, and the opening play of the fourth quarter resulted in a poor snap on an Albany State punt attempt. ASU recovered the loose ball on their own 3-yard line, but a turnover on downs set up A. Scott for the Blazers' third and final score of the game to push the Blazers in front 21-6.

Valdosta State's lone turnover of the night, a deflected pass from Hilliard that led to an interception by Tavarius Washington, came with just under ten minutes to play. Washington returned the pick for 53 yards and placed the Golden Rams at VSU's 5-yard line, where Small picked up five of his 86 rushing yards and punched it in to cut the Blazers' lead to 21-13.

Albany State threatened one last time with less than three minutes to go, but  Egim Etta-Tawo notched one of his two sacks on the night to force a third and long for the Golden Rams, from which they were unable to recover.

O'Neal picked up 56 yards in the contest to move up to 3,102 career rushing yards and become third all-time among leading rushers in the VSU record books. A majority of his yards came in the fourth quarter, in which he ran for 37 yards and nearly broke free on a 27 yard gain with less the five minutes to go.

***Courtesy Valdosta State Athletics