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Blazers Derail Panthers Playoff Chances

Bazemore-Hyder Stadium – Photo credit: Jerry Durney

The Valdosta State Blazers gave the home crowd a lot to cheer about on Saturday, scoring 28 points in the second half and handing Florida Tech a brutal 42-14 in a Gulf South Conference contest. With the loss, the Panthers fell to 5-4 overall and 3-3 in the conference, meaning the Panthers NCAA Division II playoff chances are on life support at best.

Valdosta State quarterback Rogan Wells had himself a day, going 16-for-27 through the air for 238 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 76 yards on 21 carries and four touchdowns. That is a GSC Player of the Week type performance and it would be shocking if he didn’t take that honor on Monday.

As bad as things finished for Florida Tech, they started on a good note. The Panthers scored on their second possession when quarterback Mark Cato found Melo Guerrier for a 44-yard touchdown in the corner of the Blazers end zone, giving the visitors a 7-0 lead with 4:14 to go in the first quarter.

Valdosta State answered with a touchdown drive to start the second quarter, helped by a 32-yard pass play from Wells to Travon Roberts down to the Florida Tech 30. A pass interference call moved the ball to the 15 and four plays later, Rogan took it in from three yards out, tying the game at seven.

It looked like the teams would go into the half tied, but the Blazers had 1:17 left and put together a seven-play, 67-yard drive. The tipping point on the drive and maybe the game came on a 47-yard completion from Wells to Dallas Baldner that set the Blazers up at the four-yard line with time winding down. It took four more plays and some good clock management for Wells to take it into the end zone on 4th-&-1, with all zeros showing on the clock and his team up 14-7.

It was an ugly sequence to start the second half for both teams. The Panthers Troy Gatling returned the kickoff 22 yards before he was hit. The ball came loose and was recovered by Valdosta State at the 22. After a completion got the ball down to the five-yard line, Yawn Coleman picked Wells’ next pass off in the end zone.

Unfortunately, the Panthers didn’t have time to take advantage of it, as Cato fumbled and gave the ball back to the Blazers at the FIT 30. They would eventually get a touchdown out of that, as Wells found Isaiah Johnson from five yards out, making it 21-7, with 10:25 to go in the third. They would score again on the next drive, culminating in an 11-yard scamper by Wells and giving Valdosta a commanding 21 point lead. The big play on that drive was a Wells to Kenny Benjamin 42 yard connection, putting the ball at the Tech 15.

Florida Tech forced another turnover when Evan Thompson hit Benjamin after a 12-yard completion. The ball came loose and Thompson recovered at the Blazers 43, with just three seconds left in the quarter. Unfortunately, the turnover bug bit Cato again, as he was intercepted on the very first play after the fumble.

It was a disastrous night for the Panthers with turnovers and they would come at the worst time, as it seemed everytime the Blazers would give the Panthers a chance to get back in the game, Florida Tech would give the ball right back.

To the Panthers credit, they did not allow the Blazers to turn that mistake into points, forcing a punt early the final stanza. They would start the drive deep in the own end, as the punt put them on their own seven.

Despite another fumble early in the drive, the Panthers kept possession and went on a 93-yard drive that included a 12-yard run by Cato and a 20-yard pass play to tight end Mason Wilfong, who made some big catches in the Panthers upset win over West Alabama last Saturday.

The drive culminated in a 25-yard pass to Demetrius Frazier, who leaped over his defender and stole the ball away in the offensive highlight of the night for the Panthers. That made it 28-14 with 10:12 to go in the game.  

Unfortunately for the Panthers, Valdosta State answered on their next possession, taking 4:10 to go 48 yards, ending with a Wells to Tshumbi Johnson 10-yard touchdown pass. The Blazers final touchdown was an easy one, as the Panthers were forced to go for it on 4th-&-10 from their own 19. Cato took a sack back at the four and it took four plays for Wells to run it in from the two, making it a 42-14 game.

The Panthers, who have averaged right around 400 yards of offense per game of late, were held to 307 on Saturday. Cato finished 11-for-23 for 187 yards, which is a far cry from the combined 600 yards he put up in the last two weeks, earning him back-to-back Offensive Player of the Week honors.

Running back Antwuan Haynes was held in check as well, falling well short of the 100 yards Florida Tech fans are used to. He was held to 65 yards on 18 carries, an average of 3.3 yards. His longest run was 10 yards.

For more info: Florida Tech @ Valdosta State Box Score

The Panthers now move into the spoiler role, as they look to knock off a West Georgia team that will come to Melbourne Saturday, with a 7-2 record. It is homecoming and senior day at Florida Tech Panther Stadium, so get there early. Kickoff is set for 1:00 p.m.