Kyle Caldwell and Gary Johnston combined to throw five touchdown passes and UWA rang up 558 yards total offense on the way to knocking off top-ranked Valdosta State, 49-30, Thursday at Tiger Stadium.
The victory improved 12th-ranked West Alabama to 5-1 overall and 3-0 in the Gulf South Conference. Valdosta State dropped to 4-1 and 2-1. UWA travels to No. 22 Midwestern State next Saturday.
The Tigers gashed Valdosta for 390 yards and 35 points in the second half, while limiting the defending national champions to just 14 points.
"That's a great win for our program and our university," UWA head coach Will Hall said. "Our special teams put us behind the eight-ball early, but you have to give credit to Valdosta State and Coach David Dean. That's a great football team we beat tonight."
Valdosta State struck early when Willie Downs returned the game's opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown, giving the Blazers a 7-0 lead 14 seconds into the game.
West Alabama immediately answered back. Malcolm Butler returned the ensuing kickoff 52 yards and six plays later Johnston found Kedrick Rhodes on a wheel route down the left sideline for a 23-yard touchdown pass to tie the score at 7-7.
The Blazers took advantage of another UWA special teams miscue on the Tigers next possession. D'Amonte Ridley blocked a Jordan Ikner punt in the Tiger endzone for a safety and Valdosta State led, 9-7, halfway through the first quarter.
Rhodes gave the Tigers their first lead on an 8-yard run, capping an eight-play, 85-yard drive that consumed 2:44 of the second quarter clock. UWA led 14-9 with 12:32 left in the half.
"We just kept doing what we do and started to make plays," Hall said. "What an effort by our defense to hold the top-ranked team in the country to just 21 points."
A personal foul against West Alabama on punt coverage set VSU up at its own 46 with 9:19 left in the half. The Blazers capitalized on the field position to take a 16-14 lead, driving 54 yards on seven plays and scoring on a 16-yard pass from Cayden Cochran to Tyre Walters with 6:10 left in the half.
West Alabama regained the lead on its first possession of the second half when Rhodes rambled 15 yards for his third touchdown. The touchdown was set up by a scrambling 46-yard completion from Caldwell to Chad Toocheck on third-and-24.
"We started off sluggish and made some changes at the half," Caldwell said. "We started getting more movement up front, got more up-tempo and got them on their heels and just kept going."
After the Tiger defense forced a VSU punt, West Alabama extended its lead to 28-16 on a 91-yard pass from Caldwell to Malik Lofton with 9:22 left in the third period.
"In the first half we were a little sluggish and they were pounding us," UWA safety Demetrus McNeal said. "In the second half we fit the script and got after it, starting pressing their receivers a little bit.
"This win feels great," McNeal said. "Maybe we can finally get a little credit nationally. Either way, we just have to stay humble and keep pushing forward."
Valdosta State started the next drive at the West Alabama 45-yard line following an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Tigers on the touchdown. Seven plays and 3:37 later, Cochran found Seantavius Jones for a 29-yard scoring pass to cut the UWA lead to 28-23 with 5:34 left in the third period.
Caldwell and Seth Roberts answered for West Alabama, hooking up on a 39-yard completion and then a 19-yard scoring toss to make it 35-23 UWA with 2:15 left in the third quarter. The TD reception was Roberts eighth of the season.
Caldwell and Toocheck hooked up on a 10-yard scoring pass with 12:06 to play to give UWA a 42-23 lead. The three-play, 24-yard drive was set up when the Tigers stuffed the Blazers on a fake punt at the VSU 24.
Caldwell finished 9-for-18 for 252 yards and three touchdowns. Johnston was 3-for-3 for 52 yards and two TD passes. Rhodes ran for 157 yards on 21 carries.
"In the second half we found the right blocking schemes and started rolling," Rhodes said. "We thought coming in that we were better than they were, but we just have to stay focused and stay humble."
The top-ranked Blazers cut the West Alabama lead to 42-30 with just under 10 minutes to play. Cochran capped a nine-play, 90-yard drive with a 15-yard run after dropping the shotgun snap, recovering it and scoring.
Johnston hooked up with Tyler O'Neal on an 18-yard scoring pass for the final margin, capping a 10-play, 75-yard drive with 5:41 left to play.
The Blazers wouldn't go away, however, driving to the West Alabama 11 before Rashad Greene iced the win for the Tigers by picking off Cochran in the end zone. UWA moved the ball to the VSU 20 before kneeling twice and starting the celebration.
Cochran was 22-of-38 for 232 yards and two scores. Cedric O'Neal rushed for 108 yards on 15 carries for Valdosta State. Jones had seven catches for 87 yards and a score.
Ricky Willis and McNeal had eight tackles each to lead the UWA defense. Malcolm Butler and Ryan Jones recorded five stops each.
Jeremy Grable had 10 tackles for Valdosta State.