WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Trailing 35-14 early in the third quarter, California (Pa.) scored a pair of touchdowns in less than three minutes before suffering a 35-28 loss to Winston-Salem State on Saturday afternoon in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
After WSSU missed a field goal on the game’s first drive, Lalich was intercepted on the second play of the ensuing drive at California (Pa.)’s 20-yard line. The Rams capitalized on the turnover with a six-yard rushing touchdown by senior Nicholas Cooper, who rushed for 118 yards and three scores. Cooper is the first player to rush for 100 yards against the Vulcans this season and is the first player to rush for three touchdowns in game since the 2008 NCAA semifinals.
The Vulcans answered with an 11-play touchdown drive, capped by a six-yard Knox score, to tie the game at 7-7 with 5:55 left in the first. After California (Pa.) recovered a fumble on the next WSSU drive, Knox posted his 10th rushing touchdown of the season with 20 seconds remaining in the quarter, 14-7. The drive was keyed by a 46-yard completion from Lalich to senior wide receiver Thomas Mayo, who finished the game with 129 yards on six receptions.
Mayo, who had five 100-yard games this season, finished his career ranked fifth in NCAA Division II history with 4,478 receiving yards and his 44 touchdowns rank 12th all-time.
The Rams countered with a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Cooper on their next drive, 14-13 (PAT missed), before Lalich was intercepted deep in WSSU territory. WSSU converted the turnover into a 6-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Kameron Smith, who passed for 267 yards and two scores, 20-14. On the PAT attempt, the Rams converted a fake field goal pass to take a 21-14 lead with 6:20 left in the first half. The Vulcans crossed midfield on their next drive before the Rams forced and recovered a fumble on a reception by Mayo. WSSU missed a 25-yard field on the ensuing drive before taking a 28-14 lead into halftime after Smith found Jamal Williams for a 26-yard touchdown with 24 seconds remaining in the second quarter.
On the third play of the second half, Lalich was intercepted near midfield before the return and a penalty gave the Rams possession at the Vulcans’ 20-yard line. Cooper added his third touchdown of the game with 11:23 left in the third quarter to give WSSU a 35-14 lead. Cal U answered with a seven-play, 70-yard scoring drive when Lalich found junior running back Lamont Smith for a seven-yard touchdown, 35-21, with 8:46 remaining in the quarter. On the Rams’ next drive, junior defensive back Greg Cochrane forced a fumble on a sack and senior defensive lineman Kevin Crawford recovered the ball near the red zone. Benefiting from the short field, Lalich again connected with Smith for a 17-yard touchdown on a swing pass to cut the deficit to 35-28 with 6:10 left in the third.
Smith finished the game with 35 yards and two scores on three catches. He was limited to just 35 rushing yards on 14 carries to finish the year with 1,113 rushing yards on 200 attempts.
On their next drive, the Vulcans were in position to cut into the deficit before a 26-yard field goal was blocked by the Rams. Senior defense lineman Marcus Cook then made his first career interception on the second play of the ensuing drive to give California (Pa.) possession just outside the red zone. However, the Vulcans managed only four yards on the drive before turning the ball over on downs.
After the two teams traded field position, California (Pa.) started its final drive of the game with no timeouts from its own 21-yard line. The Vulcans picked up two first downs on the drive before Lalich found senior wide receiver Chedrick Cherry on third-and-10 for a nine-yard gain at the California (Pa.) 49-yard line. On the ensuing fourth-and-one, Smith was stopped short of midfield with 48 seconds left and the Vulcans turned the ball over on downs.
With the loss, the fifth-seeded Vulcans finish the year at 10-3 overall while making their fifth-consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament. California (Pa.) has now won at least 10 games in each of the last five years. Meanwhile, the top-seeded Rams remain unbeaten this season at 12-0 and will host second-seeded New Haven next Saturday, Dec. 3, in the Super Region One Championship.
Redshirt junior quarterback Peter Lalich set the single-season school record for passing yards after posting 381 yards on Saturday, his fourth 300-yard game of the year. He completed 30-of-47 attempts with two touchdowns and a season-high three interceptions. In his first season as the starter, Lalich finished the year with school records of 3,725 passing yards, 283 completions and 447 attempts, while also posting 31 touchdowns.
The Vulcans finished the game with 438 yards of total offense, but committed four turnovers that resulted in 21 points for the Rams. California (Pa.) was also whistled for nine penalties for 95 yards. The Vulcans were limited to only 57 rushing yards on 26 attempts (2.2 yards/attempt) despite two rushing touchdowns in the first quarter by freshman Jeff Knox, Jr.
For the game, Cochrane made a team-high eight tackles (six solo) with 1.0 sack and one forced fumble. Senior defensive tackle Thomas Mulabah finished with seven stops (five solo) on Saturday, including 3.0 tackles for loss (TFL) and 1.0 sack. Senior defensive lineman Steve Santia was one of four players to register six tackles and added 2.0 TFL at WSSU.
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