It wasn't Missouri Valley College.
"I'm devastated," confessed senior defensive end Richard Wick following the Vikings' 28-14 loss to visiting St. Francis (Ind.). "All of that to come up short here."
Seventh-ranked Valley had won the Heart of America Conference title to earn a home game in the playoffs, losing in the post-season for only the second time on its turf. The No. 9 Cougars broke a deadlock with 14 fourth-quarter points.
"We just didn't take advantage of the opportunities we had," Wick explained. "We had a great season, the guys played great. It just didn't fall our way."
St. Francis served notice on the game's opening possession that it intended the beat the Vikings at their own game, putting together a 14-play, 82-yard drive which relied primarily on the run -- gaining 63 yards on 12 rushes, with the only two pass attempts providing third-down conversions.
"They've got a very big, physical offensive line," MVC head coach Paul Troth noted. "They were making some plays on third down."
Senior Frank Wolfe's 8-yard touchdown run capped the series, but Valley answered with scoring drive of its own. Freshman Nijel Daw ran for 14 yards, freshman Bruce Reyes threw to junior Daniel Gray for 28 yards and Reyes rolled left on a bootleg 11 yards into the end zone.
The Vikings came up with a stop and sophomore Keith O'Neal broke off a 33-yard run to get into St. Francis territory. On the final play of the first quarter, Reyes' 39-yard throw to the goal line was pushed by the wind -- which gusted up to 30 miles per hour from the southwest -- beyond the reach of freshman Chris Smith and Valley ran out of downs at the Cougars' 34.
Midway through the second period, St. Francis got going again, sparked by senior Justin Boser's 25-yard third-down toss to sophomore Aaron Knight. A personal foul penalty set the Cougars up at the MVC 7, freshman Antoin Campbell running it in from there.
Sophomore Tyler Davis' 29-yard punt return and a pair of Reyes passes, 11 yards to senior Gary Taylor and 12 yards to Gray, gave the Vikings a chance to score in the final minute of the half -- but they stalled in the red zone and freshman Chase Capron curled a 39-yard field-goal attempt outside of the right goal post.
Valley caught up to start the second half, Daw dashing for 47 yards and Reyes finding junior Chris Owens with an 8-yard scoring strike. After St. Francis moved the ball to the Vikings' 24-yard line, a sack by senior Trey Kampeter snuffed the threat.
Neither team could break through again until early in the fourth quarter. Sophomore Lance Carey's sack cost Valley 15 yards and on the next play junior Brody Kalbaugh batted a Reyes pass into the air and came down with the ball. On the Cougars' second snap, Knight got a step on Davis and hauled in a 34-yard pass at the 2-yard line and Campbell banged it in from there.
"That was one of the biggest plays that put us in a hole," Troth assessed the pick's impact. "We gave up a lot of field position."
Even more was surrendered when senior Chris Heale shanked a 22-yard punt out of bounds at the St. Francis 43. The Cougars exploited the break with Boser's 44-yard pass to senior Koby Frye and a 12-yard halfback option throw from freshman Kyle Matheson to junior Aaron Bettcher for a two-touchdown advantage.
Valley rallied behind Reyes, hitting Owens for 23 yards and senior Gary Taylor for 15, with a pass interference penalty in between. A 15-yard throw to Gray produced first down and goal at the Cougars' 5-yard line with 3:06 to go.
However, Smith and Taylor dropped passes in the end zone and St. Francis held the Vikings out when senior Derek VandenBosch knocked down a fourth-down throw. The Cougars were able to run out the final 2:20 for their ninth straight first-round win.
"We needed to get on the board there to even have a chance," Troth said.
St. Francis (9-2) rushed for 186 yards, a season high against the nation's third-ranked run defense, and will play at No. 3 Georgetown (Ky.) -- a homecoming for head coach Kevin Donley -- in the quarterfinal round Saturday.
Valley (9-2) suffered its second first-round elimination in a row, a disappointing end to an otherwise joyous campaign. Still, the Vikings' claimed their second league crown in Troth's 10-year tenure.
"That's a pretty tremendous accomplishment," Troth asserted. "I'm proud of the seniors."