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 consecutive 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.
SAM HOUSTON STATE 45, EASTERN WASHINGTON 42
In Cheney, Wash., quarterback Brian Bell ran for two touchdowns and threw for another and Sam Houston State raced to a 35-0 halftime lead but barely held on to beat second-seeded Eastern Washington, earning a trip to the Football Championship Subdivision championship game.
The Bearkats (11-3) face top-seeded North Dakota State, which won last year’s matchup 17-16, Jan. 5 in Frisco, Texas.
The win over Eastern Washington (11-3) was the Bearkats’ third straight over a Big Sky Conference team in the playoffs this year and fifth in a row in the past two years.