Pitt State and Valdosta State will battle for the D-II crown Saturday
Dec. 7, 2004
By Brad Dopke
Special to CollegeSports.com from College Sports Report
I cannot help but think of electricity needs in Florence, Alabama this weekend when the D-II football championship takes place. 220, 221, whatever it takes to keep that scoreboard going at Braly Stadium. It will get quite a workout when Pitt State and Valdosta State both take the field to see who will be crowned kings of the Division.
Losing to Albany State in the season-opener wasn't the most pleasant of starts for the Gulf South champions, but hindsight is indeed 20/20. Valdosta got its revenge over Albany for the right to host West Chester in the semifinal. That's when quarterback Fabian Walker went to work for the Blazers offense. Walker was flat out brilliant in leading VSU to a 31-7 halftime edge before cruising to a 45-21 win. He threw for 221 yards on the day, and was near perfect in directing Chris Hatcher's short passing game, finishing 24 of 28 passing with a pair of touchdowns.
Indeed, Valdosta's success can be directly attributed to the work of coach Hatcher. A former Harlon Hill winner at VSU himself, Hatcher's offense relies more on spreading the field and utilizing the accuracy of his quarterback and quickness of his receivers rather than pure strength and speed. Still, balance remains vital to the Blazers effectiveness on offense, as proven by Vincent Brown's 120 yards and two touchdowns rushing in the semifinal win.
Although you may not see VSU among the Division leaders in defense doesn't mean that the Blazers are by any means weak on that side of the ball. In fact, the Blazers defense has forced 34 turnovers on the year against some fearsome offenses. Meanwhile, playoff opponents have averaged just 19 points per game.
PSU appears to be an offensive juggernaut that cannot be stopped. Not even North Dakota's stifling defense could shut down the Pitt State attack as the Gorillas took to the air to down the Sioux and advance to the final, 31-19. Once again it was Germaine Race and Neil Philpot leading the Gorilla charge. Race rushed for 158 yards and a score while Philpot threw for three scores. Even the PSU defense got into it, stopping UND at vital times and giving its offense an opening to push up a lead that the Sioux couldn't chase.
What can I say about the Gorilla machine except that it has been flat out amazing! Seriously, I don't know where to begin in describing it. PSU leads the Division in scoring with a whopping average of 57 points per game. That includes scoring 70 or better in five of its games. With an amazing average of 614 yards of offense per game, no team comes even close to matching the Gorillas output. It leads the Division in rushing with a 368-yard average, and is nothing to sneeze at passing the ball with a 246-yard average there, as well.
On defense, the exploits are more difficult to come by, but a picture does begin to emerge. Solid against the run in allowing an average of just over 100 yards per game, PSU was up on so many teams early that its bulk of the work came against the pass. Although sophomore lineman Ryan Meredith is a player to watch on the Gorilla defense, it is a team effort, especially in the backfield where it has amassed 23 interceptions.
Perhaps PSU quarterback Neil Philpot is motivated from being left off Harlon Hill lists, but regardless of the matter, he's performed fantastic in the playoffs. However, like most teams, the Gorillas are at their best when they find balance. Hidden in PSU's explosiveness are the efforts of running back Germaine Race. Race is appropriately named as the running back averages over nine yards a carry. If PSU is to unleash the passing attack effectively against Valdosta, they'll need to get Race's ground game established early on.
If balance is a priority for Pitt State, it is an absolute must for Valdosta. Walker has done an amazing job of directing coach Hatcher's possession pass attack, getting the ball to his receivers quickly and let them do the damage with yards after the catch. However, either Vincent Brown or Tyran Robinson need to step up with the run to keep Meredith and the Pitt State defense honest.
Expect plenty of points for I don't see either defense having the capability of shutting down the offenses that will be taking the field. Getting off to a good start will be crucial for both clubs as either team is capable of exploding out to a big lead. Which means that Valdosta State placekicker Will Rhody (20 of 21 on the season in field goals) might become a huge factor in making sure the Blazers get on the board.
Pitt State proved its metal by recovering from a poor overall performance in a quarterfinal win over Northwest Missouri by putting together an effective attack in defeating North Dakota. Also, Valdosta State needs a near perfect game to win. For the Blazers to get off to a good start, Walker must come out sharp with his passing early on. Both teams have been good at protecting the ball, keeping turnovers to a minimum. But that can change in a heartbeat in big games like this.
Right now I stand at 18-4 in playoff predictions, so I should know what I'm talking about, right? Well, not so fast with that one. Pitt State is the pretty pick, but there is something about a well-coached ball club like Valdosta to throw a wrench into the works. Which team puts pressure on the other will have control of the game and the best shot at taking the title. Right now I see Pitt State having more potential for such control to win a tough, high-scoring affair, 40-36.
Although the Harlon Hill list of finalists is out and the winner to be announced prior to the championship game, there are some players left off of the list that I feel should be recognized. Division I-A isn't the only place where freshmen made a huge impact. If Adrian Peterson is hyped for the Heisman, why can't Chadron State's Danny Woodhead be a finalist for the Harlon Hill?
Yes, Woodhead was blessed to be the main cog behind a very physical and veteran offensive line at CSC, but the much heralded recruit lived up to his publicity by leading the Division in rushing, scoring and in all-purpose yards. Somehow freshman of the year does not live up to the true impact Woodhead had for Brad Smith's Eagles.
Gannon quarterback Darmel Whitfield may not have been the prettiest of passing quarterbacks but the skilled senior was basically the only offense the Knights had in their rookie year in the GLIAC. Whitfield took 623 snaps on the season and was quite adept at getting the Knights offense moving, as evidenced by his 322 yard average of total offense per game.
Effective quarterbacks show solid leadership, and that relates directly to minimizing mistakes, such as turnovers. It also means they must understand and operate their offense to its fullest. Both Neil Philpot and Fabian Walker should top this list. Philpot added balance to the Gorilla offense that pushed an already lethal Pitt State to heights reserved for the ages; while Walker directed a concise passing game to a point where the Blazers operated without a hitch. They limited their mistakes, not allowing opponents to gain any edge against their respective teams. Quarterbacks like Washburn's Tyler Schuerman and Concordia-St. Paul's James McNear also showed that ability this year.
On defense it begins with Tuskegee's Jordan Brumbaugh, a defensive lineman that played well against the very best. Brumbaugh led a tough Tiger defense with 14 ½ sacks and 19 tackles for loss. If not for an annual Thanksgiving hookup with I-AA Alabama State, we would have been seeing more of his exploits in the postseason. Still, don't take that out on the kid, scheduling is not his fault!
Staying the SIAC, there is little doubt that the bulk of Albany State's success came directly from the play of its defense. Star of that defense was Walter Curry. Active as a linebacker, rover, safety, whatever you want to call it, Curry was all over the field making big plays for the Rams. He finished his year with eleven sacks and 22 ½ tackles for loss for a defensive backfield that was flat out stellar.
Another defender that saw his team step up to title contention was Adam McGurk of Adams State. Like Albany State, ASC's success depended almost entirely on its defense, and McGurk was a catalyst of a fantastic one at ASC. He finished with 126 tackles on the season and forced five fumbles this year for the Grizzlies.
Rounding out my list is Texas A&M-Kingsville linebacker Curtis Tyler. Everybody in the Lone Star knows how tough both he and fellow linebacker DeAundre Fillmore made the Javelinas defense this year. Not only did Tyler notch 17 ½ tackles for loss on the season, but he also forced four fumbles.