From the opening kickoff, special teams proved a weak spot for Winston-Salem State in its national championship game loss.
The Rams gave up a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to start the game, they failed to put a dent in starting field position with their punting game and they muffed a punt return that set up a fourth-quarter Valdosta State touchdown.
The highlight came when Matt Pierce fielded the opening kick, hit a huge hole and returned it up the middle of the field for a 7-0 Blazers lead.
The middle return was something Pierce thought the Blazers would have success with.
"Looking back on the tape, we kind of knew the middle (of the Rams' kickoff coverage) was going to be weak," he said. "We knew they weren't attacking and that we'd have middle return all day long. I'm not going to lie. When I first caught it, my legs went numb. You could just see it opening up. Cedric led the way through the middle. After that, it was just wide open."
The Rams failed to make any impact in the punting game. Landen Thayer's two punts went for 25 and 27 yards, setting up Valdosta State with starting field position at its own 31 and 44-yard line, respectively.
A muffed punt by Jameze Massey provided the final dagger for Winston-Salem State. Amel Magwood recovered it at the Rams 6, setting up Cayden Cochran's 1-yard touchdown run for a 35-7 Blazers lead with 3:32 left in the game.
Winston-Salem State also showed little confidence in its field-goal kicking. The Rams unsuccessfully went for it twice on fourth down in the red zone, the first time from the 15-yard line down 21-0 in the second quarter and again from the 4-yard line down 21-7 in the third quarter.
The Rams came into the game 2-of-7 on field goal attempts this season.
Winston-Salem State ventured into unfamiliar territory when it fell into a 14-0 hole in the first quarter.
The Rams hadn't trailed by more than 7 points all season, and that came back in the second game of the season, a 30-22 win against Concord College.
They matched that deficit, giving up the touchdown return on the opening kickoff. It was the third time the opening kick had been returned for a score in the history of the Division II national championship game, but the previous two teams that did it went on to lose.
Wayne State did it last year.
"I told them to keep their head up," Rams coach Connell Maynor said. "It was early. West Texas A&M did the same thing (to us) last week, except they ran it back to the 20 and threw a touchdown the next play.
"I thought back to last year's game when Wayne State ran the opening kickoff back and they lost. I was like, ‘OK, history does repeat itself.' I definitely won't think negative. I never thought we were going to lose the football game."
Previously undefeated, Winston-Salem State had played in three games with a single-digit margin of victory this season. Two of those came in the first two weeks.
Winston-Salem State had scored in every half of football it had played coming into the national championship game. That changed Saturday, when the Rams took a 21-0 deficit into the locker room.
Their six first-half drives ended: turnover on downs, fumble, interception, turnover on downs, punt, turnover on downs.
WSSU drove down to the Blazers 36 on its first possession but followed with three straight incompletions.
The Rams best scoring opportunity of the half came on its final drive, which started at their own 13, included 11 plays and got as far as the VSU 4-yard line.
But quarterback Kameron Smith was sacked for a 6-yard loss on second-and-goal and was flagged for intentional grounding on the play, backing up WSSU to the 15.
Two straight incompletions sealed the first-half shutout.
The Rams came into the game averaging 42 points and 483 yards of offense per game. They out-gained Valdosta State 412-316 in total yards of offense, including 310 passing, but managed 7 points. They also had a season-high six turnovers, including five by the offense (three interceptions, two fumbles).
Valdosta State has relied heavily on running the ball this season, and that didn't change on Saturday, as the Blazers as 207 of its 316 total yards and three of its four offensive touchdowns were on the ground. Valdosta also finished the season with two 1,000-yard rushers for the first time in school history.
Cedric O'Neal rushed for 140 yards in the championship game to give him 1,198 yards on the season while Austin Scott rushed for 38 yards in the game, which gave him 1,030 yards for the season. Perhaps the scariest proposition for opposing coaches is that both O'Neal and Scott are freshmen, and will be carrying the Valdosta offense for the next three seasons.
Saturday's championship game was the second time Valdosta State has played at Braly Stadium this year. The Blazers defeated North Alabama 24-21 in a Gulf South Conference game on Oct. 13. Even though it's far from a home game, Valdosta players probably don't mind too much playing at Braly because they get to play in front of some large crowds.
In fact, the two games the Blazers played at Braly Stadium this year were their two highest attended games of the season. A crowd of 8,816 watched the Blazers defeat UNA while 7,527 fans were in attendence at the championship game.
Valdosta State averaged just 4,554 fans per home game this season at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium.
The Gulf South Conference might have gotten smaller in the past few years, but while it may be lacking for quantity, it certainly isn't lacking for quality.
Valdosta State's victory gave the Gulf South Conference its 10th national championship in football, most of any conference, and its third in the last nine years.
The Blazers' third championship ties them with North Alabama for most national championships won by a Gulf South Conference team. Other GSC teams to win national championships are Delta State (2000), Jacksonville State (1992) and Troy (1984, 1987).
Mississippi College won a national championship on the field as a member of the Gulf South Conference in 1989, but it was later vacated by the NCAA committee on infractions.