The Valdosta Daily Times
FLORENCE, Ala. —
The Valdosta State football team is one win away from achieving its ultimate goal: winning the national championship.
Today, the Blazers (11-2) face the undefeated Winston-Salem State Rams (14-0) in the NCAA Division II National Championship Game at Braly Municipal Stadium in Florence, Ala.
Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. Eastern, and can be viewed on ESPN2.
“I feel like we have a lot to prove because nobody thought we could get here,” Valdosta State wide receiver Regginald Lewis said. “Since those first two losses, ever since then, we said we were going to do it, and we’ve been doing it.”
Valdosta State is making the school’s fourth-ever appearance in the championship game, and its first since 2007. After losing to Grand Valley State, then coached by current Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, in 2002, the Blazers were victorious in the championship in 2004 and 2007.
Winston-Salem State is making its first-ever appearance in the championship game, and is looking to become just the second Historically Black College or University to win the national championship.
Valdosta State enters the game riding a nine-game winning streak, while Winston-Salem State enters with a perfect 13-0 record. The Rams are outscoring opponents by an average of 26.5 points per game.
After playing a much tougher conference schedule than the Rams, the Blazers defeated West Alabama (49-21), Carson-Newman (48-26) and Minnesota State-Mankato (35-19) in the playoffs.
In all three postseason games, the Blazers trailed by double digits in the second quarter, but used impressive second half performances to secure the wins. So far this postseason, the Blazers have outscored opponents 92-15 across the final two quarters.
Winston-Salem State was the champion of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. In their first playoff game, the Rams defeated Shippensburg 37-14. The Rams were able to limit Harlon Hill finalist Zach Zulli, who finished with over 4,700 yards passing this season, to 218 yards and just one touchdown.
In the quarterfinals, the Rams defeated Indiana, Pa. 21-17, using a goal line stand in the fourth quarter to secure the win. Then they defeated West Texas A&M (41-18) in the semifinals last week.
“They have excellent speed,” Valdosta State head coach David Dean said. “They play hard. They’ve got good skill position guys, especially on offense, like we do. So it is two very similar football teams. I think they are probably a little bigger than we are, which is not unusual. The only huge difference is they have about 16 or 17 Division I transfers, where we don’t have that.”
Offensively, quarterback Kameron Smith, who spent his freshman season at Navy, leads the Rams with 3,043 yards passing and 42 touchdowns. Smith has also rushed for 320 yards and four touchdowns this season.
Much like Valdosta State, the Rams have three versatile weapons in the receiving corps. Jahuann Butler leads the team with 58 receptions for 1,167 yards with 12 touchdowns, while Jameze Massey has 56 catches for 1,156 yards and 14 touchdowns. Jamal Williams has 49 receptions for 757 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Defensively, the Blazers are allowing 187.1 yards passing per game, and have allowed 300 yards passing in three games this year.
“We’ve given up some big passes (this season), but we have put in some new things and we are just going to D them up,” linebacker Jeremy Grable said. “Knowing we have those ballers on our offense, knowing if we can cover them (in practice) then we can cover anybody. Those dudes are pretty good, though.”
Valdosta State’s big three in the receiving corps includes Gerald Ford, who became the school’s first 1,000-yard receiver since 2007, Seantavious Jones, who needs 84 yards today to reach 1,000 yards on the season, and Lewis, who is second on the team in receptions with 52.
As a whole, the Blazer offense enters today’s game averaging 481.2 yards per game, including a school-record 219.8 yards rushing. Regardless, the Blazers are preparing for a challenge from the Rams, who are holding opponents to just 89.1 yards rushing per game.
“They’re very athletic,” quarterback Cayden Cochran said. “They’re guys that will go hard every play. They fly to the ball and make tackles.”
While Valdosta State has been challenged throughout the season, pulling away late in ball games and having to go on the road in the national semifinals, Winston-Salem State has been able to rest its players late in football games, and hasn’t played away from home since Nov. 3.
The Rams outscored conference opponents 350-92 this season, allowing starters to rest in the fourth quarter of games.
When meeting with the media this week, Smith admitted he has played in the fourth quarter of games just three times this season.
“A lot of games I was usually out in the middle of the third quarter,” Smith said. “We didn’t have a chance to pad the stats.”
Speaking to media at Thursday’s event, Winston-Salem State head coach Connell Maynor said he wanted to have a healthy team for the championship game, thus leading him to rest his players late in games this season.
“Any time we had a chance to rest those guys, we took advantage,” Maynor said. “We had high expectations of playing 15 games this season. We wanted to have our horses when we got to this game. I think we accomplished that. We are pretty healthy.”
Valdosta State Blazers (11-2) vs. Winston-Salem State Rams (14-0)
What: Division II national championship game
When: Saturday at 1 p.m. Eastern, noon Central
Where: Braly Municipal Stadium, Florence, Ala.
Radio: Blazer Radio Network, including 92.1 FM, 92.9 FM and 1150 AM
Social: @Ed_Hooper on Twitter