Winston-Salem State had its date with history ruined by a flurry of turnovers and a porous defense Saturday in the NCAA Division II Championship Game in Florence, Ala., while losing to Valdosta State 35-7.
The Rams, unbeaten and ranked No.2 in the country entering the game, were the first HBCU to reach the Division II Championship Game since Central State lost to North Dakota State in 1983. A victory would have made them just the second HBCU to win an NCAA National Championship in football. Florida A&M which won the inaugural Division I-AA (now known as the Football Championship Subdivision) crown in 1978. They also would have become the first team to win 15 games in a season.
Despite the loss, Winston-Salem coach Connell Maynor said his team has no reason to be down. The Rams set a number of records, including the school mark for most victories in a season with 14. In addition they won the CIAA and NCAA region championships for the second consecutive year and were unbeaten in the regular season for the second straight year.
“We had a great season,’’ Maynor said. “You can’t focus on a one-game loss. In Division II, when you make the playoffs, it’s only going to be one team that ends the season with a win. That was Valdosta State. I told the guys to keep their heads up and understand we had a tremendous year. We just lost a football game. Those guys in Connecticut lost kids and parents. They had a big loss. We were entertaining people. There’s not a lot to be down about.’’
Winston-Salem played without starting fullback Ricky Rozier and four unidentified backups who were suspended for the game for violating unspecified team rules. Maynor said the suspensions weren’t a factor in the Rams losing, however.
“They broke team rules,’’ he said. “We had to suspend them even though it was the biggest game of the year. I had to do what I had to do. It wasn’t a tough decision.
They didn’t cause us to lose. They didn’t miss any tackles or have any mistakes. The guys who played lost the game. We just didn’t execute today.’’
Winston-Salem, which lost in the semifinals last year, averaged 42.5 points a game en route to the championship game and hadn’t scored fewer than 21 points in a contest this year. The Rams ran roughshod over their competition in the CIAA while winning their second straight conference championship. They won their last eight regular season games by an average of 19 points.
Only three of their 14 victories were by fewer than 10 points, and their closest game was their 21-17 victory against Indiana University of Pennsylvania in quarterfinals of the playoffs. Their point total was the lowest in the 39 games they’ve played in the three years Maynor has been coach.
The victory made No. 17 Valdosta State (14-2) the lowest ranked team in history win the Division II championship and gives the Blazers their third National Championship in the last nine years.
Valdosta State was all over the Rams from the start. Matt Pierce returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown without a Winston-State player putting a hand on him. Maynor wasn’t fazed, however, thinking that history was his team’s side. Wayne State began the 2011 championship game with a kickoff return for a touchdown but ended up losing to Pittsburg State 35-21; last week West Texas A&M returned the opening kickoff to Winston-Salem’s 20 and scored on their first play from scrimmage, but the Rams won 41-18.
“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.’’
The Blazers never looked back as they built their lead to 14-0 in the first five minutes of the contest and were never seriously challenged the rest of the way. Winston-Salem trailed 21-0 going into the third quarter despite gaining 250 yards in the first two periods. It was the first time this season that the Rams were held scoreless in the first half.
Winston-Salem averages 481 yards total offense a game. But the Rams played in fits and starts when they had the ball. They rang up 412 total yards, but they were undone a season-high six turnovers with the most costly coming midway through the third quarter as they were trying to dig out of a 21-7 hole.
“We had 412 (yards) against that defense and that’s not bad in a national championship game,” Maynor said. “But we just didn’t execute, we fumbled the ball, we threw them the ball and when we had our chances we didn’t take advantage. We’ve been doing that all year long but today we couldn’t do it for whatever reason that was.”