As the schedule may have aided the Vikings last year during an eight-game win streak which propelled them into the NAIA Championship Series semifinal round, its opposite proved too tough this season: three straight road losses to playoff-bound clubs, including a 21-18 heartbreaker Saturday at Lindenwood.
Led by the running of senior Robert Holmes, carrying the ball a career-high 41 times for 178 yards and two touchdowns, Valley fought its way back from a 21-3 deficit midway through the second quarter to nearly tie the contest down the stretch.
Alas, a 30-yard field goal attempt by junior Adrian Trevino, two-time Heart of America Conference special teams "player of the week" this season, had the distance -- but sailed wide right into a westerly crosswind. With 5:01 left in the game, the Vikings never got the ball back.
The Lions proved they could run on the nation's No. 2 rushing defense, their offensive line sustaining blocks and not giving clean shots to Valley defenders -- unable to finish a tackle on elusive senior Dario Camacho during a 40-yard touchdown run to cap Lindenwood's opening drive, set up by sophomore Mike Bunton's 38-yard kick return.
Junior Moamoa Palepale's interception interrupted another threat and sophomore Scott Humphrey's 21-yard catch of sophomore Chris White's pass put the Vikings into field goal range.
Trevino made the 24-yarder, but only had that chance because LU junior Adarrious Ross dropped two possible interceptions -- the second with 90-plus yards of daylight between he and the end zone. He would atone later with a pair of picks.
One of two brilliant receptions by junior Marcel Thompson, for 21 yards while well-covered, extended the Lions' lead to 14-3 and an 11-play, 92-yard drive capped by Camacho's 3-yard run with 7:38 remaining in the first half added to it.
However, Valley's offense sprang to life. Humphrey caught a 17-yard pass and Holmes carried eight times for 68 yards, the 3-yarder for a touchdown followed by freshman Paul Wayne Thomas' naked holder run for two points closed the deficit to 10 points by halftime.
"We felt we hadn't played that well offensively," admitted MVC head coach Paul Troth. "We gave ourselves a chance."
The Vikings' second-half rally was late in coming, following a punt, Ross pick-off and blocked 42-yard field-goal try. With Camacho and sophomore Nate Orlando splitting 10 straight runs for 50 yards, Lindenwood moved into the red zone before sophomore Michael Franklin -- a former Smith-Cotton quarterback -- intercepted senior Ben Kisner's pass and returned it 52 yards to the Lions' 38.
Eight Holmes runs and the ball was in the end zone, Valley trailing by only three points.
"We got real simple and went right at them," Troth said. "We just wanted to keep giving [Holmes] the ball."
Junior Rudy Fleming slipped on his own 5-yard line when attempting to haul in a kick over his shoulder. Valley got the ball back when sophomore Maurice Peterson knocked it loose from Orlando at the end of a 39-yard screen pass and smothered it.
On his fifth attempt in a row, Holmes broke through for an apparent 35-yard touchdown run, only to see it called back on a holding penalty -- elation to deflation in the blink of an eye.
The Vikings still got into field-goal range, but the miss and three Lindenwood first downs settled matters.
Camacho gained 158 of the Lions' 276 rushing yards, the most Valley has allowed since Jewell hung 288 yards on them four years ago -- only to lose 27-23 in double overtime.
Lindenwood (9-1, 9-1 HAAC), with its school-record 11th straight home win, will use it's No. 7 ranking to host No. 16 Lambuth (Tenn.) to begin the post-season Saturday.
The pre-season favorite to win the HAAC title, the 18th-ranked Vikings (7-3, 7-3) will have to watch the playoffs from the sideline for the first time in three years, a bitter blow for a senior class which has won 30 games over the past three seasons.
"When you looked at what they've done, what a great group," Troth declared. "Great football players, great competitors.
"I'm proud to have coached them."