Valdosta State's Matt Pierce (26) returns the opening kick for a touchdown against Winston Salem State in the NCAA Division II National Championship game Saturday at Braly Municipal Stadium in Florence, Ala. VSU won, 35-7.
FLORENCE, Ala. — The Valdosta State Blazers closed out a playoff run built on strong finishes with the ultimate fast start.
Matt Pierce returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown and Valdosta State beat Winston-Salem State 35-7 on Saturday for its third Division II national title.
The 17th-ranked Blazers (12-2) took a 21-0 halftime lead 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.
The Blazers had trailed in the first three playoff games before pulling off lopsided wins.
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.
“We didn’t want to settle on that fast start,” Dean said. “We wanted to keep the pedal to the metal and keep playing hard.
“It was an outstanding drive to put us up to that 14-0 lead. It took them out. 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.”
The Rams (14-1) were trying to become the first historically black school to win the Division II title after losing in the semifinals last season. But 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,” Winston-Salem coach Connell Maynor said. “For whatever reason we weren’t ready to play the game today.”
Valdosta State’s Cayden Cochran was 18-of-26 passing while throwing for a touchdown and running for a pair.
Winston-Salem came in averaging 42.6 points a game and hadn’t been held below 21 all season.
The Rams, who have 27 wins the past two seasons, 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.
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.
“This team’s got leaders everywhere,” O’Neal said. “I’m like the baby of the group. They tell me every day, it’s about time I start growing up.
Cochran had overcome two big blows to his family over the past 18 months to lead the Blazers to their third title in nine years.
Six days before the game, his family home in Cashion, Okla., was destroyed by a fire. A tornado leveled their previous home in May 2011.
“This team is something that I could turn to and they responded and they helped me out in an unbelievable way,” Cochran said.
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,” Winston-Salem coach Connell 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.
The Blazers got off to a quick start.
Pierce raced untouched up the middle to open the game, the second straight year the opening kickoff in the title game went the distance.
“We kind of knew that the middle was going to be weak,” he said. “We really wanted to attack it. I’m not going to lie, when I first caught it, my legs went numb. Then when I started running, you could just see it opening up. Cedric led me through the middle. After that it was just to the house.”
Winston-Salem threatened a score late in the 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 put a lot of pressure on the quarterback,” Dean said. “I think that ended up being the difference in the game.”