FLORENCE, Ala. – The last opening kickoff for Pittsburg State in the Division II national championship game was in 1992. Gorilla great Ronald Moore ran it back 99 yards for a touchdown.
But Jacksonville State rebounded and took out the defending champion Gorillas.
Saturday was time for a little déjà vu – with a twist.
This time it was Pittsburg State’s opponent — Wayne State (Mich.) – who took the opening kick back to the house. RB Josh Renel went 93 yards to get the upstart Warriors on the board first.
But just like 19 years ago, the team that scored first didn’t win. The Gorillas capitalized on a variety of Wayne State mistakes, eventually pulling away for a 35-21 win to take home their second national championship.
Every coach talks about execution, especially in big games. And was that ever apparent on Saturday for Wayne State head coach Paul Winters. A second quarter blocked field goal was returned for a touchdown by Pittsburg State’s Aries Herrion 80 yards to give the Gorillas a 20-14 lead.
That’s a 10-point swing and gave the Gorillas the lead for good. Deflating for one team, huge for the other.
“It was super critical because instead of going up, they get points,” Winters said. “We didn’t block the edge the way we should have and they made a play. They did a fantastic job of making a play and that guy [Herrion] returned it. That hurt us earlier in the year and it hurt us [Saturday].”
Pittsburg State’s Paul Robinson was the one to get a hand on it, only to see Herrion sprinting downfield for the score.
“At first it was kind of unreal,” Anderson said of his big play. “I had to check to see if it was me. And once I saw him running down that sideline, it’s a great feeling to know you made a big play in a big game. I’ll remember this forever.”
Three interceptions, a fumble and a blocked punt were also miscues for a Warriors team that went over the 5,000 flight mile mark on the way down to Florence this week.
It was a run that saw them hit St. Cloud State, Nebraska-Kearney, defending national champs Minnesota-Duluth, and Winston-Salem State.
“Money can’t buy this experience,” Winters said. “It’s just unbelievable and an honor to be a part of it. I’m really proud of this football team. They fought through a lot of adversity and stayed together. It’s a first-class group of kids. These guys are good football players and we’ve got a good team. By the time we made the playoffs, we were ready for it.”
The miscues by the Warriors didn’t come without constant pressure from a Pittsburg State defense and special teams unit that swarmed all day long. Wayne State quarterback Mickey Mohner threw for only 59 yards – his second-lowest total of the season.
It’s a Gorillas pass rush that did so all year long, averaging three sacks a game and sitting sixth nationally in pass efficiency defense. Pittsburg State linebacker Nate Dreiling led all players with 15 tackles and a blocked punt.
“Nothing was different than what we expected,” Winters said. “That is a good – no – great football team over there. They are the national champs. You have to execute to win and we just didn’t do that.”
But before all of that came a first quarter stretch which had never been seen before at the Division II national championship. In the first 1:59 of the game, both teams had a touchdown – the quickest in history.
In that same 1:59, each squad had thrown an interception. In fact, three of the first seven plays from scrimmage resulted in picks. And in the first 4:44 of the first quarter, we saw four turnovers. Miscues, miscues, and more miscues.
“A lot of people might panic after the opening kickoff comes back for a touchdown,” Pittsburg State head coach Tim Beck said. “This football team has been extremely resilient all year, they never panic, and we’ve been able to fight back and play good on both offense and defense. Our special teams were a little shaky at times, but made a big play on the blocked field goal for a touchdown.”
Unlike his counterpart, Pittsburg State quarterback Zac Dickey was able to settle down following his first throw being picked. Dickey, a Pittsburg, Kan., native, finished with 190 yards through the air and 68 more on the ground, as he controlled a Gorillas attack that did just enough to stay out ahead of the Warriors throughout the day.
Dickey, who grew up going to Pittsburg State games, brings a title home to a team that went only 6-6 a year ago. From mediocrity to a national title in one year? With this team, yes.
“As a Pittsburg kid, it’s definitely in your blood,” Dickey said. “To do this is very, very gratifying. Everybody on the team wanted this, it wasn’t just me that wanted this. We sacrificed and gave a bunch this summer and this offseason. I think that shows the character of this team, obviously. We put a lot of critics and haters to rest today and that’s the most satisfying part of it.”
The largest DII title game crowd since 2007 – 7,276 – were in attendance. That 500-plus mile trip back to Kansas will be a little sweeter than the 600 mile trip to Detroit.
Especially for those Warriors thinking ‘What if?’
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