Instead, top-ranked Sioux Falls (S.D.) will try to defend its title Dec. 15 against No. 2 Carroll (Mont.) due to a 99-yard drive which ended a touchdown with under a minute remaining to beat the Vikings, 11-10, on a frigid, windy Sunday.
"Our goal was to score one more point than the opponent," remarked MVC head coach Paul Troth, his weary and unusually lifeless eyes revealing the extent of both his preparation and sadness. "Unfortunately, they scored one more than us."
The Vikings were already in their uniforms, taped up and ready to go, getting ready to board the bus Saturday morning when the word came down that USF officials had postponed the game due to the possibility that freezing rain may follow the snow which had fallen overnight -- a unilateral decision to which neither of the other principals, Valley athletic director Tom Fifer and the NAIA on-site administrator, agreed.
"The [Sioux Falls] president told us that he had closed down the campus and that game was called off," Fifer explained. Contrary to the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader's report that Fifer was "consulted," "I didn't have any say in it."
The rain never arrived and the city bustled with activity, while the Vikings had to scramble to find accommodations for their third night in town and a new practice facility.
The fact that the yet-unfinished Sanford Health Sports Complex did not have lights entered into the decision, although the refreezing of the melted snow which made the metal stands treacherous to climb apparently wasn't anticipated. Also not considered were the three busloads of Valley fans who were stopped two hours south of their destination Saturday morning and turned around, only to decide to spend the night in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and eventually arrived to give the Vikings loud support.
Fortunately, the players had an artificial surface on which to play, even though the Valley sideline faced the full brunt of a 30-mile-per-hour northwesterly wind which sent the chill factor into the negative digits. The Vikings, though, opened the game with a touchdown.
A 25-yard pass from red-shirt freshman Chris White to senior Maurice Austin and eight runs for 34 yards by junior Robert Holmes set up White's 3-yard dive across the goal line.
Senior all-America Chad Cavender nearly answered the challenge, completing three passes for 19 yards and running for another 16 yards to reach the MVC 2-yard line -- only to be intercepted by senior Aubrey Smith.
Junior Nick Benedetto picked off a White pass moments later, but the Cougars were again denied -- at least until Valley's poor field position caught up with it when a punt snap sailed into the end zone for a safety and junior Matt Lindgren kicked a 23-yard field goal on the ensuing possession.
Sioux Falls clamped down on the Vikings' ground attack for the rest of the half, but Troth "wanted to stay with it a little bit" -- especially since "we never got in the groove throwing the ball."
The Orange Crunch defense rose to the challenge. Beginning the second half clinging to a 7-5 lead, Valley didn't allow a first down on the home team's first four possessions of the second half.
The Vikings did move the ball, putting together a 12-play, 39-yard drive following a deflected punt by junior Billy Atlas which ended with senior Joe Park's 28-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter -- after a delay of game penalty pushed them five yards back on third down and 2 yards to go from the USF 6.
Valley turned to sophomore David Allen on the next series, his seven carries gaining 24 yards, but a sack by senior Rob Tiff kept the Vikings out of field goal range.
"We felt like we had them on the ropes and could put them away," Troth said. "We needed to finish those drives, and we didn't."
Freshman Andrew Semer's coffin-corner punt put Sioux Falls on their own 1-yard line with 3:15 left in the game. Junior Soane Sevelo nearly trapped senior Trey Erickson for a safety on a swing pass, but the Cougars recovered for a first down on a 10-yard catch by junior Robert Kirvin.
Sioux Falls went 37 more yards on three straight completions, but stalled in the "red zone." On fourth and 12 from the Valley 20, Cavender scrambled under pressure for a 14-yard gain and first down.
"We felt we had pretty good coverage downfield," Troth said. "We just missed contain."
Two snaps later, Cavender flipped a 6-yard slant pass to senior Josiah Fenceroy for the go-ahead touchdown, the same combination and play which produced the winning score a year earlier in the Cougars' 25-18 victory. The Vikings stopped the two-point conversion attempt.
A squib kick which gave Valley to ball near midfield with 38 seconds left nearly backfired on the Cougars (13-0). White hooked up with senior Eric Brown for 21 yards on fourth and 15, but two more passes from the USF 35 fell incomplete.
With only 4.6 seconds remaining, Park was called upon to try to win it for the Vikings. Yet, the goal posts were 52 yards away and, with the wind blowing primarily crossways, Park's try fell short.
"It's very disappointing for us," Troth managed to state in front of the TV cameras afterwards, even while he was pondering the many "what-ifs" which may have decided the outcome differently -- not the least of which being the prospect of what may have happened had the game been played on schedule, even with a little snow on the ground.
Still, having seen the Vikings (10-3) fight back from the brink of elimination four weeks into the season with eight straight wins to again reach the semifinal round, the discouragement couldn't completely dampen a certain sense of accomplishment.
"We've got a lot of players with a lot of pride," Troth said. "I'm extremely proud of our guys and the way they played."