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.”
The Rams had the ball first-and-goal at Valdosta State’s four. Quarterback Kameron Smith, the CIAA Offensive Player of the Year, dropped back to pass on second down after Maurice Lewis was stopped for no gain on first down. The Blazers’ pass rush forced Smith to scramble, and he fumbled the ball into the end zone. Valdosta State middle linebacker Chris Pope recovered it in the end zone for a touchback.
“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.”’’
Valdosta State coach David Dean said his team’s defense – ranked 46th in Division II – was the key to victory.
No question,’’ said Dean, whose team rebounded from a 2-2 start to win its final 10 games, “Anytime you can hold a team that can score 42 (points) to 7.
After Pope’s fumble recovery, Valdosta State methodically drove 80 yards in 17 plays, taking 7:30 off the clock in the process, and put the game away.
“Anytime you turn the ball over four or five times it’s a slim chance that you can win the game,” Maynor said. “And when you play a great team like Valdosta you are going to come out on a losing end.”
Winston-Salem’s last six-turnover game was in against Saint Augustine’s in the seventh game of the 2010 season, Maynor’s first year at the helm. The Rams were 6-0 but lost 40-35.
“We were riding high and overconfident,’’ Maynor said of that loss.
It was a different scenario this time. Maynor aid the Rams just “kept shooting ourselves the foot (with fumbles). They didn’t a good job raking the ball out. We didn’t do a good job taking care of it.’’
In addition to their half dozen turnovers, Winston-Salem also turned the ball over on downs three times and dropped several passes.
Winston-Salem moved the ball well at times, but the Rams were unable to sustain drives because of turnovers, and their defense had no answer for Valdosta State’s running game. The Blazers rushed for 207 yards, which enabled them to dominate time off possession. They held the ball for nearly 36 of the game’s 60 minutes. Freshman running back Cedric O’Neal was the Blazers’ offensive star. O’Neal rushed for 140 yards on 24 carries.
Smith threw for 269 yards for the Rams and a touchdown, a 29-yard strike to Jameze Massey in the third quarter. Massey had nine receptions for 168 yards.
Maynor said playing for the championship and experiencing the bowl-like atmosphere that surrounded the game is something that the Rams will never forget. Both teams arrived in Florence on Wednesday and participated in a number activities sponsored by the NCAA and local organizers.
“They rolled out the red carpet,’’ Maynor said. “The bowl atmosphere might have been a little too much for the guys, this being our first time and not knowing what to expect.’’