The Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association's two highest scoring offenses hit the field for Saturday's CIAA Championship football game. It didn't matter though as the game also featured the conference's stingiest defenses, who dominated a close game.
Virginia State recovered two first-half Winston-Salem State fumbles for touchdowns and got their only offensive score late in the game to end the Rams' 31-game CIAA winning streak and win their 11th conference championship, 21-17.
Freshman Niko Johnson, subbing for suspended starting quarterback Tarian Ayers, got the Virginia State offense on the board for the only time in the game with 2:59 left on a 25-yard touchdown run that proved to be the game winner.
"When I saw the opening, it was like the Red Sea parted," Johnson said in the post-game press conference. "I was very nervous at the start of the game, because I had some big shoes to fill. But after the game started I got in the zone."
Winston-Salem State, which had been on top of most Division II HBCU football polls throughout the season, is now 9-2, 7-1 in the CIAA, and is wondering what the loss will mean to their NCAA Division II playoff fortunes.
The CIAA's two best offenses where largely held down by the conference's top defenses as both were held way under their season averages in points and yardage. Both were held under 300 yards of offense.
Virginia State was playing without Ayers who was suspended by the school. Ayers was charged with DUI, underage possession of alcohol and speeding last Sunday.
It was two huge first half defensive plays that spurred Virginia State early. Dontrell Jones recovered a fumble and ran it back 62 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter. Then in the second quarter, Elder Hudson recovered a Winston-Salem State fumble on the goal line to extend the Trojans lead to 14-0.
The Winston-Salem State offense sputtered, but Phil Sims threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Eric Williams just before halfime and then Sims tied the game early in the fourth quarter on a 20-yards strike to Brenden Felder. The Rams took their first and only lead of the game on Will Johnson's 29-yard field goal with 5:48 left in the game.
But Johnson, named Most Valuable Player for VSU in the game, led the Virginia State offense down the field and then into the end zone for the win.
"I'm proud of my team with the way they stayed poised and stayed tough, and I'm proud of Niko," said Virginia State head coach Latrell Scott. "We didn't change the offense much at all. We didn't throw as much. But he (Johnson) knows the system and the schemes."
Johnson threw for 125 yards on 12-of-19 passing for the day, but rushed for 76 yards and a his touchdown. Sims,who was named the MVP for the Rams, was 15-for-20 for 173 yards and two touchdowns for Winston-Salem State. The Rams were held to 109 yards rushing on the day.
“It was a hard-fought football game — and it’s unfortunate somebody had to lose — but we came up on the short end of the stick,” Winston-Salem State head coach Kienus Boulware told the Winston=Salem Journal. “The team that made the fewest mistakes is going to win, so I want to congratulate Virginia State.
“It just wasn’t our time at the end.”
Virginia State entered the game ranked seventh in NCAA Division II Super Region I while Winston-Salem State was ranked fourth. The top six teams in the region will advance to the playoffs. The 24-team playoff field will be announced Sunday at 5 p.m.