Valdosta St. tops Winston-Salem 35-7 for D-2 title

Winston-Salem State coach Connell Maynor watched his unbeaten

team give up a touchdown on the opening kickoff but didn’t get

worried.

He’d seen it all before, a couple of times. This time the Rams

couldn’t overcome Valdosta State’s fast start Saturday and fell

35-7 in the Division II national championship game, coming up short

in their bid to become the first historically black school to win

the crown and complete a perfect season.

Matt Pierce’s 96-yard scoring return to open the game came a

year after Wayne State started the same way – only to lose to

Pittsburg State.

”I was, `OK, history does repeat itself. They ran the opening

kickoff back and we’re going to win the game,”’ Maynor said. ”I’m

never going to think negative.

”I never thought we were going to lose the football game.”

After all the Rams (14-1) had given up a long return and

first-play touchdown in the semifinals against West Texas A&M

before winning 41-18.

They couldn’t do it again, or even come close.

The 17th-ranked Blazers (12-2) led 21-0 by halftime and became

the lowest-ranked team to win the title. It was their 10th straight

victory and first national title since 2007, coach David Dean’s

debut season.

They needed 12 seconds to score and 5 minutes to build a 14-0

lead against a team that hadn’t trailed by more than a touchdown

all season.

”They hadn’t been in that situation before and I didn’t know if

they knew how to react to that, because they’d been blowing

everybody out week after week,” Dean said of the Rams

The Rams have 27 wins in the past two seasons but lost in the

semifinals a year ago. They couldn’t overcome six turnovers,

including several that ended promising drives.

”Any time you turn the ball over as many times as we did

against a team like Valdosta State, you’re going to come out on the

losing end,” Maynor said. ”For whatever reason we weren’t ready

to play the game today.”

Winston-Salem came in averaging 42.6 points a game and hadn’t

been held below 21 all season.

The Rams couldn’t cash in despite a 412-316 edge in total

yards.

They were just the second HBCU team to make it to the

championship game. Central State of Ohio fell to North Dakota State

in 1983.

Valdosta State’s Cayden Cochran was 18-of-26 passing while

throwing for a touchdown and running for a pair.

The Blazers capitalized on the mistakes for their third Division

II title and the 10th by the Gulf South Conference. They had opened

the season 2-2 before starting to roll and won their four playoff

games by a combined 94 points.

O’Neal had 24 carries and scored on a 24-yard run on fourth and

1 for the team’s second touchdown. Austin Scott added 38 yards to

give Valdosta State its first tandem to reach 1,000 yards rushing

in the same season.

Winston-Salem’s second-team All-American Kameron Smith was

16-of-37 passing for 269 yards and a touchdown but threw two

interceptions. He also had a fumble roll into Valdosta State’s end

zone late in the third quarter. Receiver Jameze Massey was the

Rams’ biggest bright spot with nine catches for 168 yards,

including a 28-yard touchdown that made it a 21-7 in the third

quarter.

Smith had run for 6 yards on fourth-and-5 on the previous

play.

Then another mistake ended a promising drive when Valdosta

State’s Chris Pope recovered Smith’s fumble.

”We had the momentum,” Maynor said. ”No telling what could

have happened, but we didn’t get it done. They made a good play.

They stripped the ball and they recovered. It was very deflating,

because we had the momentum and were driving and it looked like we

were going to cut it to a seven-point game.”

O’Neal and the Blazers then went on their longest drive of the

season, covering 17 plays and milking 7:31 from the clock into the

fourth quarter. Cochran hit Quin Robinson for a 17-yard touchdown

strike on third down to push the lead to 28-7.

Cochran added his second 1-yard scoring run in the final

minutes.

Winston-Salem threatened a score late in the first half. The

Rams gave up a sack and three straight incompletions after getting

second and goal from the 4 and a diving Massey couldn’t collect

Smith’s fourth-down pass to the end zone.

The Blazers kept continuous heat on him and racked up five

sacks.

”We came out and gave it all we’ve got,” Smith said. ”We made

a lot of mistakes and made turnovers, and it’s hard to win games

when you make so many mistakes.”