WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Winston-Salem State didn’t have its cleanest game of the season, but in the Division II playoffs that doesn’t always matter.
The ninth-ranked Rams leaned on their defense, and quarterback Rudy Johnson did enough good things Saturday in a 27-20 first-round victory against No. 20 Slippery Rock in front of 3,500 at Bowman Gray Stadium.
WSSU (10-1) will play next weekend at Shepherd (W.Va.), which is 10-0 and seeded No. 1 in Super Region One.
“Our defense controlled the whole game,” said Coach Connell Maynor, whose Rams held the Rock to a season-low 210 yards. “I told those guys before the game we are going to prove we have the No. 1 defense in the nation. That team averaged 45 points a game, and we shut them down.”
If not for WSSU’s season-high four turnovers, Slippery Rock (9-3) might not have scored — two of its touchdowns came after turnovers and the third came on an interception return.
Johnson had a season-high three interceptions but also threw three touchdown passes.
“I knew I have a great defense, and I just tried to move the chains as much as I could because I knew our defense would hold them,” said Johnson, who was 24 of 37 passing for 315 yards and also ran for a team-high 86 yards. “A couple of plays I had I wish had back, but that’s how it goes sometimes.”
Johnson staked the Rams to a 27-13 lead with 6:28 left in the third quarter after hitting tight end Jerry Chandler with a 33-yard touchdown pass.
Because the Rock shut down the Rams’ running game, Johnson had to try to move the ball through the air to protect that lead. Anthony Saunders had the third interception against Johnson late in the third quarter, and quarterback Nigel Barksdale’s 1-yard run cut it to 27-20.
But Slippery Rock never came close to tying.
Barksdale came into the game with more than 4,000 yards of offense, but Coach George Mihalik benched him for the first quarter for disciplinary reasons. Barksdale never got into a rhythm and was intercepted three times.
Larry Hearne returned one of those interceptions 70 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter, helping set the tone for the WSSU defense.
“We just wanted to eliminate the big plays and not give them too much downfield,” Hearne said. “Coming into it, we knew (Barksdale) liked to run, but he also could get the ball down field, so we just tried to contain him.”
Barksdale had one of his lowest outputs of the season — 67 yards passing and 36 rushing — and was sacked twice.
Maynor had some concerns about WSSU’s penalties (17 for 155 yards) and the four turnovers.
“It’s very uncharacteristic for us to turn the ball over, and we say if we don’t turn the ball over, there isn’t anybody that can beat us,” he said. “The four turnovers kept those guys in the game, but our defense played great.”
Slippery Rock got the ball back once more with 1:55 remaining, starting at its 36 after a punt.
But John Rizor and Michael Bloomfield had two key tackles in the backfield, then Alfy Hill tackled Barksdale after a 10-yard run on a fourth-and-17 play. The Rams took over with 43 seconds left and ran out the clock.
The past week was a trying one for Johnson and the rest of the Rams, after an attack on Johnson by Virginia State players led to the cancellation of the CIAA championship game.
“There was a little pressure,” Johnson said. “I’m just glad we got the win.”
Maynor said Johnson handled himself well despite the interceptions. And Johnson was the only captain Maynor sent out for the pre-game coin toss.
“There was a lot of pressure to put on a young man,” Maynor said, “and for him to go through it like that, I’m pretty sure he’s just glad we get to play another football game.”
Written by John Dell/Winston-Salem Journal