Nick Cooper leads WSSU to victory (

WINSTON-SALEM, NC – The #3 ranked Winston-Salem State University rode the back of running back Nicholas Cooper’s 118 yards and three touchdowns, and Kameron Smith passed for 267 yards and two scores, as the Rams defeated #17 California University (Pa.), 35-28 in the second round of the NCAA Division II Playoffs.

Winston-Salem State moves to 12-0 on the year, while the Vulcans end their season at 10-3 overall. The Rams are the #1 seed in Super Region One. Cal (Pa.) came in as the #5 seed in the region.

WSSU would take the opening kickoff and marched down the field behind a 19 yard pass from Kameron Smith to Jameze Massey, and a 33 yard run by Nicholas Cooper, however, the Rams possession would stall and force a WSSU field goal attempt. Landen Thayer’s 30 yard field goal sailed wide ride, giving the ball to California.

On the Vulcans second play from scrimmage, WSSU’s Jonathan Setzer would step in front of a Peter Lalich pass for an interception deep in Vulcan territory.

A Nichols Cooper six yard run and an eight yard pass from Smith to Darryl Freeney, gave the Rams a first and goal early. Two plays later Cooper would cross the goal line for a score, and the subsequent good PAT, gave WSSU a 7-0 lead.

Cal (Pa.) would settle into their offense with their next possession and would go 75 yards in 11 plays, taking off 4:46 seconds, before Jeff Knox crossed to goal line to tie the score at 7-7.

Winston-Salem State would get the ball back and start another drive, highlighted at a 32 yard pass to Juhuann Butler. But four plays later, a scrambling Kam Smith would be sacked and a fumble would give ball back to the Vulcans.

Once again the Vulcans would go on a methodical drive, marching down the field picking up chunks of passing yards underneath, helped out by WSSU penalties. Cal’s Jeff Knox would score his second touchdown of the quarter, pushing their lead to 14-7.

Facing a deficit for one of the few times this season, WSSU would waste no time in getting back into the game. A solid mix of rushing and passing moved the Rams down the field, highlighted by a Smith to Dominique Fitzgerald, 15 yard pass on fourth and 12, and a 20 yard pass from Smith to Tehvyn Brantley to the Vulcan one yard line. Nicholas Cooper would hammer it in on the next play, but Alejandro Suarez’s PAT would hit the upright, making the score 14-13.

After a short kickoff and nice return from Cal’s Jeff Knox, two plays later the Ram defense would rise up once again, this time it was CJ Washington who stepped in front of a Lalich pass for an interception and returned it 16 yards, giving the Rams back the momentum.

Another determined drive for the Rams would see WSSU drive 73 yards in eight plays, covering 3:32 seconds, was capped off with a Kameron Smith to Cedric Hickman and Jamie DeGeare would find Jerry Chandler for a 2-point conversion pass for the PAT, to put the Rams up 21-14.

Winston-Salem State would hold the Vulcans on their next series and force a punt, that WSSU’s nation leading punt returner, Dominique Fitzgerald, would return 12 yards.

WSSU would look to make a serious statement, as they took control of the next series and drove 63 yards, capped off by a Smith to Jamal Williams 26 yard touchdown pass and PAT, pushing the Rams lead to 28-14 heading into the half.

California would take the second half kick and start their drive from the 30 yard line. Two plays later, Peter Lalich would be picked off for the third time, this time by WSSU linebacker, Antonio Gates. Gates would weave through traffic on his was to freedom, but a horse collar tackle would cause a severe ankle injury to Gates, who after a stoppage in play, was carted off the field by the mobile ambulance.

Inspired by their fallen teammate, six plays later Nicholas Cooper would find paydirt in the endzone for the third time on the afternoon for the Rams, pushing their lead to 38-14 less than three minutes into the second half.

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 WSSU’s next possession, Cal’s Greg Cochrane forced a fumble on a sack of Kameron Smith, and a recovery for the Vulcan.

Cal’s Lalich again connected with Smith for a 17-yard touchdown on a swing pass to cut Rams’ lead to 35-28 with 6:10 left in the third, after taking advantage of the short field.

Winston-Salem State would not be able to find its footing, as the momentum had changed sides of the stadium. Another short series and punt would turn the ball back over to Cal U with time running out in the third quarter.

The Vulcans would march down the field on a long 13 play, 69 yard drive, but a 26 yard field goal was blocked by CIAA Defensive Player of the Year,Alton Keaton, giving the Rams the ball back and thwarting Cal’s attempt to tie the game.

Two play later, Kameron Smith would be picked off deep in their own territory, but eh Rams defense would stand strong and on fourth down, forced Lalich to over his targeted receiver, giving WSSU the ball.

After exchanging possessions, and with the clock moving towards game end, the Vulcans looked primed to tie the score. They would go nine plays, and 37 yards, but on fourth down with 48 seconds remaining and a fourth and one, the WSSU defense would come up with the biggest stop of the season, and maybe in its football history, stopping the Vulcan runner short of the first down, giving the Rams back the ball to run out the clock.

Offensively for Winston-Salem State, Nicholas Cooper rushed 20 times for 118 and three scores,, while Kameron Smith finished going 20 of 33 with one interception for 267 yards and two touchdowns. Jameze Massey the led the WSSU wide receivers with five catches for 65 yards, while Dominique Fitzgerald had four catches for 50 yards. Jamal Williams finished with three cacthes for 39 yards and a score, and Tehvyn Brantley also had three catches for 38 yards. Juhuann Butler had two catches for 55 yards and Cedric Hickman had two catches for 12 yards and a score.

Defensively, Alton Keaton finished with eight tackles, one tackle for a loss and one blocked kick, while Carlos Fields had eight tackles as well, with one tackle for a loss and one pass break up. Khendra Reid had seven tackles; Donnie Owens had five tackles, one sack, two tackles for loss and a pass deflection. Malcolm Rowe and Jonathan Setzer each had five tackles with Setzer also picking off one pass. Akeem Ward also picked up a sack for WSSU.

Winston-Salem State will host second-seeded New Haven next Saturday, Dec. 3, in the Super Region One Championship at 12:00 pm (subject to change) in Bowman Gray Stadium. New Haven advanced to the Elite 8 to face WSSU by defeating Kutztown, 44-37.

Courtesy of CIAA