FLORENCE, Ala. -- Valdosta State took it to previously unbeaten Winston-Salem State right from the opening kickoff and went on to win the 2012 NCAA Division II Football Championship 35-7 on a blustery Saturday at Braly Municipal Stadium.

Matt Pierce returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown and Valdosta State (12-2) never looked back en route to its third national championship, and first since 2007.

For Winston-Salem (14-1), it was a bitter end to a great season. Playing in its first championship game, and in front of a well-traveled fan base, the Rams were looking to become just the fifth team in Division II history to finish undefeated, and the first HBCU school to win the title. Instead, Winston-Salem fell behind by its largest deficit of the season (14-0) less than five minutes into the game, went scoreless in a half for the first time all year and committed a season-high six turnovers.

The fifth came with less than five minutes remaining when Jameze Massey fumbled on his own 6-yard line. The Blazers recovered and, three plays later, Cayden Cochran scored on his second quarterback keeper of the game to ice the victory.

Cedric O’Neal led the way on the ground for Valdosta, rushing for 140 yards on 24 carries. Cochran completed 18 of 26 passes for 109 yards and three touchdowns, one passing.

Winston-Salem quarterback Kameron Smith completed 16 of 37 passes for 269 yards, but threw two interceptions and was sacked four times. Maurice Lewis led the ground game with 58 yards on 16 carries. Massey led all receivers with 168 yards on nine catches.

Valdosta held Winston-Salem on downs on the first drive of the game and took over at its own 36-yard line. The Blazers then drove 63 yards in eight plays, making good on their fourth-down attempt as O’Neal scampered 24 yards on fourth-and-1 for a 14-0 lead with 10:16 left in the first quarter. Until then, the Rams had never trailed by more than seven points in 2012.

Valdosta made it 21-0 in the second quarter with Cochran capping a 13-play, 72-yard drive with a 1-yard keeper.

Winston-Salem’s best opportunity to score came in the closing minute of the first half when it drove to Valdosta’s 4-yard line, but a sack and subsequent intentional grounding penalty on Smith squelched the scoring threat. The Rams’ first-half statistics showed a lost fumble, an interception, 0-for-3 on fourth down and 0-for-1 in the red zone.

Winston-Salem got on the board with the only third-quarter score of the game when Smith hit Massey for a 29-yard touchdown pass and, after holding Valdosta to a three-and-out on its subsequent possession, seemed to finally have the momentum. The Rams drove to the Blazers’ 4-yard line, but Smith fumbled on the 1-yard line and it was recovered in the end zone by Chris Pope.

Valdosta then marched 80 yards in 17 plays, capped early in the fourth quarter by a 17-yard, Cochran-to-Quin Roberson touchdown to re-establish a three-score lead.