Valdosta Daily Times

December 16, 2012

Valdosta State Blazers: 2012 Division II national champions!

Blazers dominate Rams, win third Division II title

Ed Hooper
The Valdosta Daily Times

FLORENCE, Ala. — The Valdosta State students and fans couldn’t help themselves. With the time winding off the clock in Saturday’s Division II national championship game, they slowly started to creep over the fence and onto the field.

When the final horn buzzed, Blazer Nation stormed a field that is the regular season home to one of the school’s biggest rivals. For the third time in nine years, the Blazer football team had won the national championship.

Valdosta State (12-2) used a bevy of Winston-Salem State (14-1) turnovers, along with an opening kickoff return for a touchdown and an impressive performance from a true freshman running back to blow out the Winston-Salem State Rams 35-7 in the championship game Saturday afternoon.

“It is about the kids,” Valdosta State head coach David Dean said. “You get in this game with kids and watch them grow and develop and (try) to lead them to be national champions, and for these guys to come out national champions, that means more to me than winning two, three or four myself.”

With the win, the Blazers have now won three national championships since 2004, when they beat Pittsburg State for their first Division II title. It was also Valdosta State’s seventh all-time national championship and its third in the past 19 months; men’s tennis won the championship in May 2011 and women’s softball won it in May 2012.

Despite being held to just 316 yards of total offense on the day, the Blazers made sure Saturday’s championship game was never close, largely because they had one of their most impressive defensive performances of the year.

The Blazer defense returned to the form of the Black Swarm of years past, forcing six Ram turnovers and four turnovers on downs in the win.

“To hold a team that entered averaging 42 points per game to seven, it is just a tremendous feat,” Dean said. “I thought our defensive line played great. Chris Pope just made tackle after tackle, solo tackles. We put a lot of pressure on the quarterback, and I thought that ended up being the difference in the game.”

Offensively, freshman running back Cedric O’Neal rushed for a game-high 140 yards with a first quarter touchdown, which followed up Matt Pierce’s kickoff return for a score, giving the Blazers an early 14-0 lead less than five minutes into the game.

“This team (has) got leaders everywhere, from Matt Pierce to Cayden (Cochran),” O’Neal said. “I’m like the baby. They tell me every day, ‘It’s about time to grow up.’ That’s in the practice, the weight room, in the position meetings and team meetings. I just try and give it 100 percent.”

Cochran, playing in a game less than a full week since his family’s home burned down in Oklahoma, completed 18 of 26 passes for 109 yards, and added a key fourth quarter touchdown pass to Quin Roberson (6 catches, 38 yards, one touchdown) that iced the game. Cochran also finished with two rushing touchdowns.

“It is an unbelievable feeling,” said Cochran, who couldn’t hold back his emotion during a television interview on the field. “I’ve been on teams before where I thought we were working hard and had team unity. I tell you right now, I’ve never seen anything more knit-tight than these guys, these coaches. It is unbelievable.”

Known for being a second-half team this postseason — they entered outscoring opponents 92-15 in the second half — the Blazers came out of the gates Saturday better than anyone could have expected, and started their rout before some fans could even settle into their seats.

Just 12 seconds into the game, the Blazers found themselves ahead 7-0 when Pierce returned the game’s opening kickoff back for a touchdown.

“I knew the middle was going to be weak, so I really wanted to attack it,” said Pierce, who admitted his legs went numb when he caught the ball. “When I started running, you could just see it open up, and Cedric led it up the middle, and after that, it was just take it to the house.”

Following a Winston-Salem turnover on downs, the Blazers drove 63 yards on eight plays and used a 24-yard touchdown run by O’Neal to take a 14-0 lead with 10:16 remaining in the first quarter.

“One thing we talked about was we wanted to get off to a fast start,” Dean said. “We just didn’t want to settle on that fast start. We wanted to keep the pedal to the medal and build on that fast start.”

After failing to take advantage of a fumble recovery by safety Lance Holder, who also had an interception late in the fourth quarter, and an interception by defensive tackle Tevin Davis, the Blazers got back into the end zone late in the second quarter, when Cochran engineered a 13-play, 72-yard touchdown drive by completing seven straight passes.

Cochran capped off the drive with a touchdown run from inside the 1-yard line, putting the Blazers ahead 21-0.

“That was a huge drive for us,” Dean said. “To put together that drive, (we) ate up a lot of clock. Of the 13 plays we ran, I think I called the zone play 10 times in that drive.”

Winston-Salem dominated the third quarter, essentially moving the ball up and down the field at its own will. The Rams ended the Blazers’ shutout chances with a 29-yard touchdown pass from Kameron Smith to Jameze Massey.

Then, following a three-and-out for the Blazers, the Rams were on the move again, driving inside the 5-yard line. That’s when Valdosta State forced its fourth turnover of the day, coming when linebacker Jeremy Grable hit Smith, jolting the ball loose into the end zone.

Pope, who finished with a team-high 10 tackles, jumped onto the football for a touchback, giving the Blazers possession of the ball at their own 20.

“We had to get some pressure back there and Grable came through and he grabbed him first and just ripped it out,” Pope said. “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and I was able to recover it. … We knew they had a little drive going, and it was a two-possession game at the time. They had ran the ball down on us pretty good, and we needed a stop.”

Needing a time-consuming drive to build on the momentum change following the fumble, the Blazers dialed up their most impressive drive of the season. Running the ball with O’Neal and fellow freshman Austin Scott — who eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark with a second quarter run — while mixing in the pass with Cochran, the Blazers drove 80 yards on a season-long 17 plays, taking up a season-high 7 1/2 minutes off the clock.

Cochran connected with Roberson on a 17-yard touchdown pass to give the Blazers a 28-7 lead with 13:08 remaining in the game.

“When we got that ball, I challenged our offensive line at that point,” Dean said. “I said, ‘This is where we can change the game. We can put the game away right here, and cause doubt in their mind.’ It is amazing the number of times I step into the huddle and challenge the offensive line, and those five seniors find a way to get it done.”

A few possessions later, the Blazers capped off their scoring when Cochran scored on a 1-yard touchdown run with 3:32 left in the fourth quarter.

Following that score, the Blazers couldn’t hide their celebration. It was clear Valdosta State was going to win the national championship.