Ron Higgins,

CLEVELAND, Miss. -- Drenching rain, gusting wind, a 40-minute lightning delay and a soaked field didn’t keep Delta State from its appointed destiny of playing for a national championship.

The Statesmen, boosted by quarterback Micah Davis’ two post-lighting delay touchdown passes, held on for a 29-17 NCAA Division II semifinal victory against Shepherd University at Parker Field-McCool Stadium.

Delta State (11-3), which started the season 6-3, won its fifth consecutive game to advance to next Saturday’s national title game in Florence, Ala. against Minnesota Duluth (13-0), which beat Northwest Missouri State, 17-13 in the other Division II semifinal.

DSU won the national title in 2000 when it beat Bloomsberg, 63-34.

“I’m proud for our program, our university and our town,” DSU head coach Ron Roberts said. “I’m excited to go to the national championship, but I want to make sure we keep our focus because we’ve got more one game. I don’t want to be so excited that we’re satisfied to get there (the national championship game). We have unfinished business.”

The Statesmen were clinging to a 17-14 lead on Saturday when lightning halted the game with 8 minutes, 43 seconds left in the third quarter. Despite the natural grass field being thoroughly soaked, it didn’t deter DSU’s Davis from firing away, even with a wet football.

He spun away from a pass rusher to find a wide-open Carlton Ollie for a 64-yard touchdown, which Roberts called “an unbelievable big-time play.” The score gave DSU a 23-14 lead with 5:17 left in the third period.

The game-clincher was Davis’ 6-yard touchdown pass to L.J. Castile with 2:46 left in the game, following a 16-yard interception return by DSU senior defensive back Garrett Williams.

“The delay calmed me down,” said Davis, who finished 14-of-22 for 193 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions [one of the last plays before the lightning delay]. “The whole time during the delay, my teammates told me to keep my head up.”

Which is exactly what Davis did. Once play resumed and the DSU defense forced a punt, Davis made the play of the game on his scoring strike to Ollie on third-and-3 from the DSU 34.

Davis may have been a bit nervous throwing the ball to Ollie, streaking toward the north end of the stadium. In the first half, Ollie had two similar passes intercepted when the strong wind held them up long enough for Shepherd defenders to intercept.

But after the lightning and rain, the wind died and Davis was confident when he scrambled away from trouble and saw Ollie running alone down the middle of the field.

“He wasn’t even one of my designed options,” Davis said. “I was just hoping he would catch it.”

Shepherd, trying to get to the DII finals for the first time in head coach Monte Cater’s 29-year coaching career, ended the season 12-2. The Rams, who traveled more than 960 miles from Shepherdstown, W. Va., gave Delta State all it could handle and more.

DSU outgained Shepherd 347-281, despite Shepherd running 20 more plays (78 to Delta State’s 58). The Rams were limited to 69 yards rushing, but hung in until the final minutes because of the passing of quarterback Kevin Clancy. He finished 24-of-44 for 212 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.

“We hadn’t played in the rain this year,” Cater said, “but the worse the conditions got, the better I thought we’d be. We’re more of a running, play-action team anyway. We had some opportunities, but we didn’t make enough plays.”

Both teams scored on their first possessions of the day. Those drives combined to eat 13:39 of the first quarter – and both were extensive scoring drives powered by the almost-perfect passing of the game’s two starting quarterbacks.

DSU edged ahead 17-14 on Matt Snyder’s 33-yard field goal on the last play of the first half. But Shepherd appeared poised to take the lead when A.J. Parrish’s 51-yard interception return to the DSU 44 gave the Rams’ momentum with 8:43 left in the third quarter.

But that’s when the officials stopped the game because of lightning. And when play finally started again, Shepherd wasn’t the same again and DSU got stronger.

“We definitely thought we had a chance in the second half,” Shepherd’s Clancy said. “I just made some mistakes and it cost us.”