An interception of a deflected pass set up the go-ahead touchdown and blocked kick and fumble returns produced two more scores as the 12th-ranked Vikings scored 33 straight second-half points to upend No. 7 Heart of America Conference champion Lindenwood, 33-13, and land a berth in the NAIA Championship Series.
"Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games," was how junior all-America defensive end Larry Wentzel described the way the Orange Crunch D took command after Valley fell behind 7-0 in the final minute of the first half.
That score probably shouldn't have occurred anyway. It came when senior wideout Dominic Peterson caught a lateral pass and threw 20-yards to junior Brent Hodgkiss, who went up between two defenders in the end zone to nab it with 32 seconds remaining.
Earlier in the drive, the Lions had been stalled deep in their own end and punted to near midfield, flagged for an illegal block during the play. However, a personal foul against the Vikings after the whistle blew brought the ball back, much to the displeasure of the crowd, because -- according to HAAC supervisor of officials Bill George -- live- and dead-ball penalties cannot be split.
"We knew going in that we'd have to play with a lot of emotion and intensity," said MVC head coach Paul Troth, approaching the nine penalties for 87 yards marched off against his club with equanimity. "We had some concerns about guys going a little harder a little longer."
That passion didn't abate when the Vikings were down at halftime, coming out of the break with a 10-play, 34-yard drive to set up a 29-yard field goal by senior Joe Park.
On the ensuing possession, senior Jacory Lindsey swatted a pass from Lindenwood junior Ben Kisner. The ball floated into the hands of senior linebacker Marquette Floyd, whose 27-yard return to the Lions' 13-yard line set up sophomore David Allen's go-ahead touchdown run on the next play.
"Every opportunity to make a play, I have to make," explained Floyd, who knocked down three passes of his own -- two on downfield routes -- and made six tackles..
"The interception was a big momentum-changer," Troth said. "You could feel the momentum shift."
Late in the third period, Lindenwood drove into home territory before senior Reggie Singletary dropped senior Hakeem Abdullah for a 6-yard loss. Sophomore Halley Ferrell came on for a 36-yard field goal attempt, but it was blocked by sophomore Merlin Benefield. Senior Aubrey Smith collected the loose ball and sprinted 72 yards to make it 16-7.
After stopping the Lions cold, Valley got the ball back -- with junior Javion Jones bringing the punt back 30 yards. Sophomore David Allen broke off a 41-yard run to the LU 1 and rumbled in two snaps later.
A major penalty allowed Lindenwood to reach the MVC 35 early in the fourth quarter, but it was stopped there on three straight incomplete passes. Senior Eric Brown caught a 44-yard heave by freshman Chris White, leading to a 31-yard Park field goal with 8:55 to go in the game.
The Lions (10-1, 9-1 HAAC) pulled their key starters, but Valley had more defensive magic in its bag. Sophomore Anthony Collins and Wentzel came up with sacks on back-to-back plays, sophomore Colin Smith stealing the ball during the second one and taking it 50 yards for a victory-sealing score.
"They'd never been down before," Floyd remarked. "We wanted to step on their throat and make them doubt they could come back on us."
Lindenwood, seventh in the NAIA with 218.9 rushing yards per game, was limited to only 19 net yards by the nation's second-ranked run defense.
"Their whole offensive scheme was to make us miss," Wentzel noted. "We worked hard watching film and showed discipline."
In order to return to the playoffs after reaching the semifinals a year ago, the Vikings (8-2, 8-2) had to reel off six straight wins -- but doing so earned a trip Saturday to No. 8 Friends (Kan.).
"We put ourselves in a bad situation," Wentzel admitted. After the 2-2 start, it "was a lot of stress and a lot of pressure."
After playing six straight games while on the brink of elimination, what's another one -- or two, three or four -- to these resilient Vikings?