FLORENCE, Ala. -- Winston-Salem State head coach Connell Maynor had foretold his team's tough challenge in the national title game.

Valdosta State was making its fourth NCAA Division II Championship appearance. The Blazers lost in 2002, then won the title in 2004 and 2007.

“Their only loss was in their first appearance, with all the hoopla,” Maynor said.

Maynor’s Rams were making their first trip to the championship game. Everything about this week was new to them, beginning with their arrival on Wednesday for the Saturday showdown.

“Was it the big stage, all the police escorts and all the festivities since we’ve been here? We don’t normally travel early. It could have been,” Maynor said. “I told my team, I said we can’t get caught up in that, we got to stay focused and understand why we’re here. I don’t know if it got through. I just know the guys didn’t make the plays they normally make.”

The result was an uncharacteristic showing for the previously unbeaten Rams in a 35-7 loss to the now three-time champions from Valdosta State, which despite a different cast of characters on the field had a familiar face on the sideline in head coach David Dean, who led his 2007 Blazers to the national title.

Statistically, Winston-Salem (14-1) ran one more play, had more first downs (24-18) and nearly outgained Valdosta by 100 yards (412-316), but the lopsided score was a result of turning the ball over on downs four times (in six chances), being 0-for-2 in the red zone and, most glaring, six turnovers.

“We moved the ball, but we turned the ball over and we dropped some balls; we just didn’t make the plays that we normally made all season long,” Maynor said. “We just didn’t execute. We had opportunities; we didn’t take advantage of them. We’d been doing that all year long, we didn’t do that [Saturday]. For whatever reason it was, I don’t know.”

Winston-Salem found itself trailing 21-0 at halftime, establishing a pair of 2012 firsts not to its liking. Before Saturday, the biggest deficit the Rams had faced was seven points, and its first-half shutout marked the only time they had failed to score in a half.

Winston-Salem began to make some noise in the third quarter when it put together an eight-play, 80-yard drive in just 1:47 of clock time. Senior quarterback found wide receiver Tehvyn Brantley for 37 yards and then capped the drive with a 29-yard touchdown strick to wideout Jameze Massey, who caught nine passes for 168 yards.

After forcing Valdosta to a three-and-out, the Rams were on the move again and found themselves with a first-and-goal on the Blazers’ 4-yard line. After a Maurice Lewis rush went for no gain, a slant play was called in from the sideline. The play wasn’t open, and Smith opted to run. He was stripped of the ball at the 1-yard line and Valdosta recovered in the end zone. For all intents and purposes, the game was over.

“We were stopping ourselves,” Maynor said. “We called the same stuff. The stuff was there. We moved the ball, but we turned the ball over.

“I thought we were ready. I didn’t do a good enough job of getting my guys ready to play and execute like they did all year long.”

Maynor is now confronted with the task of replacing 21 seniors – beginning with his all-CIAA quarterback Smith and his three leading receivers, including Massey, as well as key defensive personnel – who have been part of a magical run at Winston-Salem. The Rams made it to the national semifinals last year and were the only final four team from 2011 to make it that far in ’12.

“This was a very special season. That’s what I told the guys. I told them, ‘You won the CIAA championship back-to-back years, you won the region back-to-back, you played for the national championship – only the second HBCU team ever. You have no reason to hold your heads down,’ ” Maynor said.

“We had 60 minutes to prove we were the better team, and we didn’t do it [Saturday]. We didn’t come out on top. That’s OK, we’ll keep fighting; we’ll learn from it, we’ll get better.

Perhaps Maynor was foretelling again.

“Each year we’ve gone further. We got some guys that we got to replace, but like I say, we don’t rebuild, we reload.”