FLORENCE, Ala. — Winston-Salem State coach Connell Maynor watched his unbeaten team give up a touchdown on the opening kickoff but didn't get worried.
He'd seen it all before, a couple of times. This time the Rams couldn't overcome Valdosta State's fast start Saturday and fell 35-7 in the Division II national championship game, coming up short in their bid to become the first historically black school to win the crown and complete a perfect season.
Matt Pierce's 96-yard scoring return to open the game came a year after Wayne State started the same way — only to lose to Pittsburg State.
"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."
After all the Rams (14-1) had given up a long return and first-play touchdown in the semifinals against West Texas A&M before winning 41-18.
They couldn't do it again, or even come close.
The 17th-ranked Blazers (12-2) led 21-0 by halftime 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.
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.
"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," Dean said of the Rams
The Rams have 27 wins in the past two seasons but lost in the semifinals a year ago. 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," Maynor said. "For whatever reason we weren't ready to play the game today."
Winston-Salem came in averaging 42.6 points a game and hadn't been held below 21 all season.
The Rams 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.
Valdosta State's Cayden Cochran was 18-of-26 passing while throwing for a touchdown and running for a pair.
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.
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," 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.
Winston-Salem threatened a score late in the first 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 came out and gave it all we've got," Smith said. "We made a lot of mistakes and made turnovers, and it's hard to win games when you make so many mistakes."