Guarding a seven-point lead with about five minutes remaining and a trip to the national championship on the line, Northwest Missouri could have played it safe. Keep it on the ground, burn the clock and move the chains.
Bearcats coach Adam Dorrel had another idea.
“When you’re playing scared and not playing to win, it filters down to your kids,” Dorrel said. “We talked about all week, play to win.”
The Bearcats did precisely that. Trevor Adams heaved a 43-yard touchdown pass to Reuben Thomas, who had streaked behind the defense, giving Northwest its 27-13 victory over Grand Valley State on Saturday.
The triumph sends Northwest to the NCAA championship game next Saturday against Lenoir-Rhyne (N.C.) in Florence, Ala., where the Bearcats will bid for the fourth national championship in the program’s history.
It’s Northwest’s eighth title game appearance, the first under Dorrel. Lenoir-Rhyne will be making its title game debut.
The Bearcats maintained control of the game but could never pull away, until that long pass.
“I was so excited that he caught it and glad he wasn’t going to be mad at me for underthrowing it,” Adams said.
Thomas had his second touchdown catch. He turned a curl into a 28-yard score in the third quarter that gave Northwest at 20-6 lead.
Grand Valley answered with its only touchdown of the day, a 4-yard pass from Heath Parling to Jamie Potts, and the Lakers forced Dorrel into a decision on the Bearcats’ next possession, which stalled at the Grand Valley 43, less than 1 yard short of a first down.
About 10 1/2 minutes remained and the Lakers had started to find an offensive rhythm, but Dorrel didn’t hesitate. He sent on the punting team and showed full faith in a defense that had solid throughout the day — and the postseason.
“We know we had to get some stops,” defensive end Matt Longacre said. “It was a situation where a stop was big.”
It paid off. Grand Valley picked up a first down, and moved to midfield. But tackle Bryant Hummel broke through to record a sack, Northwest’s third of the day and first that didn’t belong to Longacre, who finished with three.
Grand Valley was forced to punt, and a few plays later, the Bearcats had their game-clinching touchdown.
The Bearcats’ defense, as it had throughout the postseason, was dominant, holding the Lakers to 294 total yards.
“They were as advertised,” Parling said. “They force you make some plays because they’re going to stop the run. We didn’t make enough plays against them.”
Stopping the run — Grand Valley netted 55 yards — is likely to be key to Northwest’s chances next weekend. In its 42-14 victory over West Chester (Pa.) in the other national semifinal contest, Lenoir-Rhyne didn’t throw a pass, rushing for 451 yards.
The Bearcats’ defense also came up big in the first half. On the game’s second play, Adams threw a screen pass behind Thomas that ended up a lateral and fumble. Grand Valley recovered on the 17. Punch in an early touchdown and who knows this game unfolds.
Instead, Longacre recorded his first sack of the day and the Lakers were held to a field goal.
Northwest got another gut-punch in the second quarter. The Bearcats drove to the Grand Valley 1, but Adams couldn’t control a snap. With the ball bouncing around, fleet Grand Valley safety Erik Thompson scooped it up and appeared to have an open field before him.
But he had traveled 15 yards when alert wide receiver Korey Jackson had the angle and made the tackle.
“I thought that was a huge play,” Dorrel said.
There were several of them for Northwest, and the Bearcats weren’t afraid to make them.