MARYVILLE, Mo. -- 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 head 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.
Grand Valley forced a Kyle Goodburn punt on fourth-and-1 from the Lakers' 43-yard line to give its offense a chance at a game-tying drive.
But senior defensive tackle Bryant Hummel brought down Parling for a 9-yard loss to force a punt with about 7 minutes left.
The Lakers double-covered Thomas on the next Bearcats possession, but ceded a 30-yard catch-and-run from Bryce Young. One play later, Thomas broke free.
"He was creating us some problems in man," Grand Valley head coach Matt Mitchell said. "That was probably the difference in the game: the play-action pass and the ability of [Thomas] to beat us in man-to-man coverage."
Thomas finished with seven receptions for 143 yards and two touchdowns and burned Grand Valley for a 28-yard crossing-route score early in the third quarter to make it 20-6.
Adams' first pass to Thomas began one of the Bearcats' worst halves this season. The pass ricocheted behind the line of scrimmage, and Lakers defensive end Matt Mosley recovered.
"Your heart just thinks when, we call that dart screen, it's just the worst feeling to see that ball be thrown like that," Dorrel said. "Then, I don't know what it is, but there's just this calming effect with our kids. They look each other in the eye and look me in the eye and say, 'We're gonna be fine.'"
Northwest Missouri outgained Grand Valley 521-294.
"It took us a while to get back," Longacre said. "[Defensive coordinator Rich] Wright, this week, talked about it a lot, kind of the feeling you get after the game and you see the goal posts come down. I'm so happy for the guys we get to experience it and kind of make the last trip down to Florence. A lot of us haven't been down there."
Florence will host the DII title for possibly the last time before Kansas City, Kan., hosts the next four DII title games.