FLORENCE, Ala. -- Right from the opening kickoff, Valdosta State put the pressure on Winston-Salem State and never let up, winning the NCAA Division II Football Championship 35-7 on Saturday at Braly Municipal Stadium.

The championship was the third in Valdosta State history, the second for head coach David Dean and the first for a select group of guys that convincingly took it to Winston-Salem.

“You get in this game to be with kids and watch kids grow and develop and for these guys to come out national champions, that means more to me than if I have two, three, four, five, it doesn’t matter. These guys have one and that’s what it’s all about,” Dean said, who also won the championship in his first year at Valdosta in 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 story of the game was turnovers,” Winston-Salem head coach Connell Maynor said. “Any time you turn the ball over as many times as we did against a team like Valdosta, you’re going to come out on the losing end.”

Winston-Salem’s fifth turnover came with less than five minutes remaining when Jameze Massey fumbled on his own 6-yard line. Valdosta (12-2) recovered and, three plays later, Cayden Cochran scored on his second quarterback keeper of the game to ice the victory.

But it was the Rams’ fourth turnover of the game that punched the biggest hole in the collective gut of Winston-Salem. Having scored early in the third quarter to close the deficit to 21-7, the Rams were driving again when Blazers linebacker Jeremy Grable stripped Winston-Salem quarterback Kameron Smith at the 1-yard line. Valdosta’s Chris Pope recovered the fumble in the end zone, and the Rams never threatened again.

“They had ran the ball on us pretty good, we just knew we had to make a stop,” Pope said. “And Grable was able to come up and strip the ball and I happened to be in the right spot at the right time and I was able to recover it.”

Valdosta then embarked on an 80-yard, 17-play drive, capped early in the fourth quarter by a 17-yard, Cochran-to-Quin Roberson touchdown to re-establish a three-score lead.

“Obviously that was a big momentum changer in the ballgame. I think that took a lot of wind out their sails,” Dean said. “They were getting back into the ballgame. If they put that in, it’s a one possession game.”

The play called for Smith to throw a slant, but when it wasn’t there he decided to run.

“He could’ve chose to throw it away but he pulled it down and ran, which is fine as long as he protected the ball. They did a great job of ripping it out when they had opportunities,” Maynor said.

“That pretty much took wind out of us. I tried to keep the guys up right there, but they drove the ball right down on us and that really killed everything we had going. We get it in right there, no telling what can happen.”

It was a rough game for the senior Smith, who threw two interceptions and was sacked four times.

“I am very disappointed,” Smith said. “We made a lot of mistakes and made turnovers, and it’s hard to win games when you make so many mistakes.”

“I have to commend our defense. To hold that football team, which averages 42 points a game to seven, is just a tremendous feat,” Dean said. “We put a lot of pressure on the quarterback. I think that ended up being the difference in the game.”

Valdosta jumped out to an early 7-0 lead when Matt Pierce returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown.

“I knew the middle was going to be weak, so I really wanted to attack it,” Pierce said. “I’m not going to lie, when I first caught it, my legs went numb. When I started running, you could just see it open up and Cedric [O’Neal] led it up the middle, and after that it was just take it to the house.”

But as big as that play was, the tone was really set the next time the Blazers had the ball, when they drove 63 yards in eight plays, with O’Neal – who rushed for a game-high 140 yards -- scoring from 24 yards out on fourth down-and-1 to give Valdosta 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.

"We wanted to get off to a fast start but we didn’t want to settle on that fast start. We wanted to keep the pedal to the metal and keep playing hard,” Dean said. “It was an outstanding drive, to put us up to that 14-0 lead and changed the outlook of the game. They hadn’t been in that situation before. I don’t know if they knew how to react to that because they had been blowing everybody out week after week. It kind of put a little bit pressure on them to be down that fast that early.”

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