With the 2011 season on the line, the University of North Alabama blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown, then mounted 12-play fourth quarter touchdown drive to pull out a 30-23 road win at Valdosta State.
The win not only pushes the Lions' record to 8-2 overall but should all but guarantee UNA a spot in the NCAA Division II playoff field that will be announced at 4 p.m. Sunday. North Alabama has advanced to the Division II playoffs the last six straight seasons.
Trailing 23-16 in the fourth quarter, UNA's Tristan Purifoy broke through to block a Jack Fulford punt and Robbie Burdine picked it up and raced 22 yards to the end zone. Josh Montgomery's extra-point tied the game at 23-23 with 8:08 left in the game. After a defensive stand by UNA forced a VSU punt, the Lions took over at their own 21 and marched to the Blazers' 16 where they faced a second-and-11-call. UNA quarterback Lee Chapple then dumped a pass down the left side that Wes Holland took 16 yards to the end zone for a 30-23 North Alabama lead with just 57 seconds left to play.
Having to rely on third-string quarterback Brett Whitmire, the Blazers were able to move into UNA territory but a leaping interception by Bryan Thomas in the end zone stopped the threat and gave UNA the win.
The win was UNA's third straight in Valdosta and seventh win in the last 10 meetings in the series. The Lions lead the all-time series 20-14-1 and have a 10-8-1 record in Valdosta.
Chapple completed 26 of 38 passes for UNA for 247 yards and two touchdowns but he did throw two interceptions. Antwan Ivey led the Lions' ground attack with 73 yards on 14 carries.
North Alabama gained 381 total yards with 134 rushing and 247 passing. The Blazers had 350 total yards with 218 rushing and 132 passing.
North Alabama got on the board first with a nine-play, 60-yard drive in the first quarter. Chapple passed for the final four yards to Jason Smith for the touchdown, giving UNA the lead with 2:30 left in the period. Josh Montgomery's PAT made it 7-0.
The Blazers answered immediately as Matt Pierce fielded the ensuing punt at his own four and returned it 96 yards for a touchdown to make it 7-6 with 2:16 left in the first. Daniel Andersen's extra-point attempt was blocked by UNA's Janoris Jenkins and Darnell Jackson returned it to the end zone for a defensive extra-point, giving UNA a 9-6 lead.
Chapple threw an interception on UNA's next possession but the Lions' DeAndre Morgan stopped the VSU drive with a pick of his own in the end zone. North Alabama then held the ball for more than seven minutes, moving from its own 20 yard-line to the VUS 21 before the drive stalled. Montgomery came on to attempt a 38-yard field goal but it was wide left.
Valdosta State then marched 79 yards in 11 plays for a touchdown to take the lead, Cayden Cochran dumped a screen pass to Cameo Holloway and he took it the final 19 yards to the end zone. Andersen's kick gave the Blazers a 13-9 advantage at the 3:41 mark of the second quarter.
North Alabama put together an impressive seven-play, 63-yard drive to regain the lead. Chappled completed passes for 12, 24 and 10 yards and Wes Holland added a 17-yard run to move the ball to the VSU one. Chris Coffey then dove in over the right side for the touchdown. Montgomery's kick made it 16-13 with just 45 seconds left in the half.
After a squib kick by the Lions, Valdosta State began its next possession at its own 43. Five plays later Cochran found Griffin Roelle in the back of the end zone with a 33-yard pass. Andersen's kick gave the Blazers a 20-16 advantage.
UNA's Janoris Jenkins returned the kickoff 70 yards before being pushed out at the VSU five yard-line on the last play of the half.
The third quarter almost passed without any scoring but VSU got a 26-yard field goal from Andersen with 11 seconds left in the frame to make it 23-16.
UNA then scored the final two touchdowns for the win.
With 41 carries in the game, UNA extended its streak of consecutive rushing attempts without losing a fumble to 320 dating back to the 2011 season opener.
The win was the 40th for the UNA senior class of 2011 as they improved to 40-10. The win makes the class just the eighth in school history to win as many as 40 games in their collective careers.