DURHAM, NC (WWBT) - Freshman quarterback Niko Johnson ran 25 yards up the middle to pay dirt with 2:59 left to play allowing North Division champion Virginia State to come away with a 21-17 win over South Division powerhouse Winston-Salem State Saturday in the CIAA Championship Game in Durham, North Carolina.
Johnson, subbing for suspended starting QB Tarrian Ayres, after playing sparingly in just thee games and throwing only three passes all season long, deftly directed the VSU offense all day, running for 76 yards on 13 carries and hitting on 12 of 19 passes for 125 yards. Johnson was voted VSU's MVP for the game.
His game-winning scoring jaunt came after WSSU had come back to take its first lead of the game at 17-14 following two fourth-quarter VSU miscues.
"When I saw the opening, it was like the Red Sea parted," a poised and smiling Johnson said in the post-game press conference of the game-winning touchdown run. "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." With VSU up 14-7 early in the fourth period, the second of two short punts from VSU punter Matt Hillquist, this one covering only 14 yards, gave WSSU the ball at the VSU 19. Three plays later WSSU QB Phillip Sims hit wideout Brendan Felder on a 20-yard crossing pattern deep in the end zone. The Alejandro Suarez PAT tied the score at 14 with 11:22 to play.
On first down after the ensuing kickoff, Johnson was hit and stripped by WSSU DE Duvonte Covington who recovered at the VSU 30. Ten plays later, Suarez kicked thru a 29-yard field goal that gave the Rams the 17-14 lead with 5:48 to play.
VSU began the game-winning drive at their own 24. The first big play was a pass in the right flat to RB Kavon Bellamy on 3rd-and-7 from the VSU 29 that covered 38 yards and carried to the WSSU 33. After hitting Willie Stubblefield on an 8-yard pass, Johnson went back to pass but found the middle open and ran straight up the field and only was tackled as he crossed the goal line.
In the final possession of the game, WSSU drove to the VSU 46 before being stopped on downs.
"I'm proud of my team with the way they stayed poised and stayed tough, and I'm proud of Niko," said VSU head coach Latrell Scott of the his team and the young freshman. "We didn't change the offense much at all. We didn't throw as much. But he (Johnson) knows the system and the schemes."
"We've been focused this entire season. I just wanted to make sure we weren't satisfied with just being here." VSU (9-2) entered the game ranked seventh in NCAA Div. II Super Region I while WSSU (9-2), who had won the last two CIAA championship games, was ranked fourth. The top six teams in the region will advance to the NCAA Div. II playoffs. The 24-team playoff field will be announced Sunday at 5 p.m.
Virginia State scored on WSSU's first possession of the game when on the Rams' seventh play from scrimmage at midfield, tailback Mustafa Greene fumbled and VSU defensive back Dontrell Jones picked it up at the VSU 39 and rumbled 61 yards to paydirt.
The Trojans then scored on its next possession as Johnson methodically marched them 80 yards in 16 plays chewing up over nine minutes of the clock and scoring when Johnson ran from 11 yards out to the goal line, was hit by WSSU DB Everett Proctor and fumbled, but it was recovered by VSU lineman Elder Hudson, III in the end zone. After the PAT, VSU was up 14-0 with 13:01 left in the second quarter.
WSSU got on the board just before the half on a 38-yard pass from Sims to wideout Eric Williams. That score came after the Rams stopped VSU on downs at the WSSU 22 with 4:40 left in the half. The scoring drive took seven plays and covered 78 yards, all on pass completions by WSSU MVP Sims, who finished 15 of 20 for 173 yards and two TDs with one interception.
"It's unfortunate that somebody had to lose this game today, but everybody knows that the team that makes the fewest mistakes is going to win," said WSSU head coach Kienus Boulware. The Rams gave up two fumbles and were picked off in the end zone in the second half. VSU also lost two fumbles but Johnson did not throw a pick.
Bellamy ran for 68 yards and had two receptions for 48 yards for VSU. Maurice Lewis led the WSSU ground attack (109 yards on 30 carries) getting 34 yards on 11 carries. QB Rudy Johnson, who alternated with Sims, completed only two of six passes for 15 yards and had one fumble. Covington led the WSSU defensive efford with 10 stops, 8 solos, and forced two fumbles.
Jones added six tackles to his fumble recovery and TD runback for VSU. Andre Rawls led VSU with ten tackles, nine solos.