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CIAA champion VSU heads to NCAA playoffs

Fred Jeter | 11/21/2014, 6 a.m.
Virginia State University is the CIAA Football Champion for the first time since 1996 and eagerly awaiting its first-ever NCAA ...
Virginia State University football coach Latrell Scott and his players celebrate after beating Winston-Salem State University 21-17 last Saturday in the CIAA Championship game in Durham, N.C. The Trojans earned a home game in the first round of the NCAA Division II playoffs. They will play Long Island University-Post of Brookville, N.Y, noon Saturday at Rogers Stadium. Virginia State University radio station WVST 91.3 FM will carry the game, with coverage beginning 11:30 a.m. Courtesy of Virginia State University Athletic Department

Big, bad Winston-Salem State University huffed and puffed but couldn’t blow Niko Johnson away.

As a result, Virginia State University is the CIAA Football Champion for the first time since 1996 and eagerly awaiting its first-ever NCAA playoff game.

With nine straight victories including felling Winston-Salem State 21-17 in the CIAA conference title game Saturday, Nov. 15, in Durham, the third-seed Trojans will entertain sixth-seed Long Island University-Post of Brookville, N.Y.

The NCAA Division II first-round match-up is set for noon Saturday, Nov. 22, at Rogers Stadium. The winner advances to play at Bloomsburg, Pa., Nov. 29.

The finals of the 24-team tournament will be Dec. 20 in Kansas City, Mo.

Niko answers SOS: In his first college start, quarterback Niko Johnson, the red-shirt freshman from Hermitage High School in Henrico County, didn’t buckle under pressure.

Facing a juggernaut that had won 31 straight games against CIAA foes, Johnson shined with his arm (12-19, 125 yards), legs (13 carries, 76 yards) and even with his postgame comments.

On his game-winning, 25-yard touchdown with 2:59 left, he said: “When I saw the opening, it was like the Red Sea parting,” he said, referencing Winston-Salem State’s red jerseys.

Johnson out-dueled the Rams’ alternating quarterbacks, Rudy Johnson, an All-CIAA in 2013, and Phillip Sims, a former starter at Alabama and Virginia.

In his emergency role, Johnson was subbing for VSU quarterback Tarian Ayres, who was suspended from the title game following his arrest Nov. 9 in Waverly on charges of driving under the influence of alcohol, underage possession of alcohol and speeding.

VSU coach Latrell Scott (now 18-3 overall and 15-0 against CIAA foes) now must decide who will quarterback against LIU — Johnson or Ayres?

“Right now, Niko is our quarterback,” said Scott.

Providing himself some wiggle room, Scott added:

“Things happen.”

Ayres, who is second in CIAA passing yardage during the regular season, is expected to practice this week and will be available.

Johnson was Scotts’ second signee — following Varina High School’s Daryl Simmons — after becoming VSU’s coach in winter 2012. Ayres transferred to VSU after one year at Virginia Military Institute.

As a high school senior in 2012, Johnson led the Hermitage High Panthers to a 10-0 regular-season record, averaging 45 points.

Hermitage fell in the region playoffs, 24-20, to the L.C. Bird High School squad that went on to win the State 6A crown.

Holmes sweet Holmes: VSU’s first-year defensive coordinator Jerry Holmes played 10 years in the NFL, mostly with the New York Jets, recording 25 interceptions.

Holmes was Hampton University head coach in 2008, succeeding Joe Taylor.

The Trojans’ defensive scheme against Winston-Salem State was spot on. The Rams averaged 38 points and 458 yards per game through 10 games. Against VSU, they settled for 17 points, 297 yards.

Time of possession favored VSU, 35:06 to 24.54, a tribute to defensive efficiency and Johnson’s game management.

“Coach Holmes has been everything we could ask for,” said Scott.

In Durham, Dontrell Jones started things in VSU’s favor with a 62-yard fumble return for a touchdown. And Tyrell Smith finished it, breaking up Sims’ final pass in the closing seconds.