Valdosta edges Tift 26-23 in Heartbreaker

Cleveland Field is made of plastic and crumbled tires. Bazemore-Hyder Stadium is big and beautiful and looks mostly empty at kickoff. But when it comes right down to it, Valdosta High School still plays its football games in Death Valley, and it is one tough place to win a football game. The Tift County Blue Devils built yet another big lead against Valdosta only to see it disappear in a hail of Seth Shuman completions falling to the Wildcats in a critical region game 26-23.

The Devils (5-2, 0-2) appeared to have won the game on a last second Griffin Collier to Barry Bennett screen pass, but the officials called a holding penalty. The 51-yard score was a thing of beauty. On a second and one play, a deftly thrown touch pass was reeled in by Bennett who followed outstanding blocking all the way down the left sideline before cutting back to the middle to score with just over a minute to play. The score capped a 90-yard drive that would have entered Tift lore forever.

 Sophomore Griffin Collier scores on the ground. Photo: Shine Rankin Jr./SGSN


Sophomore Griffin Collier scores on the ground.
Photo: Shine Rankin Jr./SGSN

Instead, an official called a holding penalty nine yards behind the line of scrimmage. How a hold could occur nine yards behind the line of scrimmage on a screen is tough to say. Because of a GHSA rule that bears no resemblance to any other level of football from pee wees to any form of professional football, the penalty was marked off from the spot of the foul. The 19-yard penalty left the Devils with a second down and 20 yards to go. The next play was an interception that ended the game.

Just as it has done for the last two years, Tift built a healthy lead with a balanced offense and a stingy defense. The Devils ran for 166 yards in the first half and used Valdosta miscues to build a 20-7 halftime lead. Tift would gain just 27 yards on the ground in the second half and looked on as Valdosta scored 19 unanswered points to finish the game.Shuman delivered his Cats from the prospect of a second consecutive home loss and an 0-2 region record with sizzling precision. The senior QB completed six passes in-a-row in the decisive fourth quarter for 92 yards. He seemingly willed his team to the win. Shuman, who has yet to throw an interception on the year, finished the game with 254 yards and a touchdown on 18 of 33 passing. His numbers would have been much better if it weren’t for the outstanding play of the Tift front four which chased Shuman all over the field.

Valdosta fumbles a punt return in the first half. Tift's recovery set up a early field goal. Photo: Shine Rankin Jr./SGSN

Valdosta fumbles a punt return in the first half. Tift’s recovery set up a early field goal.
Photo: Shine Rankin Jr./SGSN

Tift super sophomore Fernando Ramirez kicked three field goals in the game. He opened the scoring with a 30-yarder after Jakwon Golson recovered a muffed Valdosta punt on the Wildcats’ 12 yard line. A 31 yarder gave Tift a 13-0 lead after Wendell White recovered a Wildcat fumble at the Valdosta 22 yard line. Ramirez’ 36 yard field goal in the fourth quarter followed yet another Valdosta turnover. This time Eric Atkins fell on a Valdosta fumble at the Wildcat 22. Ramirez’ third field goal stretched the Tift lead to 23-7 in the third quarter.

 

 

RJ Merriweather catches a 4th down bomb in the first half. Photo: Shine Rankin Jr./SGSN

RJ Merriweather catches a 4th down bomb in the first half.
Photo: Shine Rankin Jr./SGSN

Field goals were not what the Tift offense wanted. With possessions starting at the Valdosta 12, 22 and 22 yard lines, the Devils offense couldn’t manage a single first down and settled for field goals. Collier’s shining moment came on a fourth and 17 play at the Valdosta 35. He arched a perfect pass to R.J. Merriweather for a score. Collier saw Merriweather get a step behind the Valdosta corner back on the right sideline and hung the ball up down the hash marks. Merriweather tracked the ball beautifully and ran under it at the goal line for the score. Collier finished with 118 yards passing (13 for 26 with two picks and a TD) and 65 yards rushing (17 rushes).

Valdosta’s Tim Griffin scored two 1-yard touchdowns running the ball. For the game, the Wildcats gained 115 yards on the ground on 29 carries. Valdosta outgained Tift 369-308. The Cats went for two after making the score 23-13 but a big play by Atkins snuffed that. A botched snap after a touchdown left the score 23-19 moments later as Valdosta score on three consecutive possessions with the game on the line.

Tift must now face highly ranked and undefeated Camden County at home next Friday night. Valdosta travels to Colquitt County.

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