MARYVILLE, Mo. (AP) — Critical collapses overshadowed the success Adam Dorrel attained during his first two years as Northwest Missouri State's head coach.
His loaded teams mostly faltered in season-defining moments. Those memories, however, played a role in Saturday's decisive sequence that buried those shortcomings.
"Play to win," said the Bearcats third-year coach. "Unfortunately, I've lost some big games here at Northwest. I've always tried to learn from that as a play-caller. When you're playing scared and you don't play to win, I think it really filters down to our kids."
Up seven with a fresh set of downs and the clock churning midway through the fourth quarter, Northwest Missouri could've deployed a conservative strategy to hold off Grand Valley State, but Dorrel decided to see if his burgeoning-star slot receiver could break free one more time.
Reuben Thomas eluded defenders and waited, and Trevor Adams found his top target for a 43-yard touchdown to cinch up the Bearcats' 27-13 triumph in an NCAA Division II semifinal at Bearcat Stadium, sending Northwest (14-0) to its first national championship game in four seasons and eighth championship game overall.
"I was glad he wasn't gonna be mad at me for underthrowing it on the sideline like he has before. That was one thing I was thinking," said Adams, a third-year starter who completed 15 of 21 passes for 284 yards. "That was one of those feelings you don't get that often."
The Mid-American Intercollegiate Athletic Association champion Bearcats will seek its fourth national title in Florence, Ala. against Lenoir-Rhyne — a 13-1 South Atlantic Conference team.
Grand Valley (12-3) made advancement much more difficult than the previous two teams on the Bearcats' playoff slate -- Minnesota-Duluth and St. Cloud State lost to Northwest by a combined 104-42 the past two weeks.
Down 20-6 late in the third quarter, the Lakers tested Bearcats' powerful defense and had realistic aspirations of completing a third straight double-digit playoff comeback.
Lakers quarterback Heath Parling became the first signal-caller this season to routinely beat Bearcats NFL prospect cornerback Brandon Dixon. He did so especially on an eight-play, 77-yard drive. Parling found tight end Jamie Potts for a 4-yard touchdown on a fourth-and-goal fade route, cutting Northwest's lead to 20-13 with 2 seconds remaining in the third quarter.