Football preview: Valdosta State

UNA senior defensive back Philbert Martial drops back in coverage during Valdosta State’s last visit to Braly Stadium Nov. 22, 2014. The Blazers defeated the Lions 33-31 in the opening round of the NCAA Division II playoffs.

UNA football seeks its first win of the season Sept. 17 when rival Valdosta State visits Braly Stadium in each teams’ Gulf South Conference opener.

The Lions come into the game after an extended time off from a bye week and a Thursday night game at Jacksonville State Sept. 1. Valdosta is also entering the game off of a bye week after defeating Albany State Sept. 3.

The No. 20 Lions will square off against the No. 22 Blazers in a battle of ranked teams in the Lions home opener.

“It’s unusual to play such a strong (conference) team this early in the year,” said head coach Bobby Wallace. “The conference championship has been won by either us or Valdosta (in) 15 of the past 23 years.”

The Lions will have to find a way to neutralize dual-threat quarterback Roland Rivers, who had 203 yards and a passing touchdown and added another 44 yards and a touchdown rushing in the Blazers game against Albany State.

Valdosta wide receivers Damien Strange and Dallas Baldner were the main targets for Rivers. Both receivers had four receptions for over 80 yards against Albany.

The UNA secondary will be key in defending the aerial attack of Valdosta.

“I feel very confident in our defense,” said senior UNA safety James Rivers. “We have been watching film (of Valdosta) for two weeks now. We are ready to go.”

The UNA offense will be facing a Valdosta defense that surrendered 220 yards rushing and 157 yards passing for a total of 377 yards versus Albany.

The Lions look to improve their running game from a 52-yard team total against Jacksonville State.

Changing up the blocking scheme is one way the Lions are adjusting this week, said senior offensive lineman Jordan Brooks.

“We have been really focusing on our (blocking) fundamentals,” Brooks said. “They have some good sized defensive linemen and some quick linebackers, but I think we will be pretty physical and let our running backs do their thing.”

Saturday’s game will mark the final home opener for the seniors.

“It seems like it was just yesterday that I was a freshman, taking the field for the first time,” Rivers said. “It is going to be a good game, and I cannot wait to play.”

The seniors will have to find a way to keep the team focused, while also enjoying the game atmosphere.

“It is very exciting,” Brooks said. “I am anticipating the game a lot. We are ready to get out back out there in front of the best home crowd in Division-II football. Everybody is ready to get back out there against a big rival. I think it is going to be a good one.”

Kickoff from Braly is at 6 p.m. The game will be televised on The American Sports Network and streamed on ESPN3.

Follow @FloAlaSports on Twitter for live scoring updates and a post-game recap.