The third-ranked Vikings fell behind by two touchdowns for the first time this season, but slowly came back and got a pair of fourth-quarter scores to pull out a 35-21 victory at No. 15 Evangel.
"We needed that," remarked MVC senior tackle Stephon Kelly. "You're not going to blow every team out, especially in the playoffs."
The Crusaders were in the hunt for their first league title since 2005, and appeared ready to extend a five-game win streak. A 33-yard pass from junior Andrew Brimhall to senior Mitch McHenry got them to the Valley 8-yard line, but sophomore Ty Phillips picked of a shovel pass to keep them out.
The Vikings couldn't dodge a second bullet, senior Tommy Meyer's 58-yard run setting up a 1-yard Brimhall sneak across the goal line.
Meanwhile, Valley's offense managed only two first downs on its first three series.
"They were loading up the box and bringing a lot of pressure, making it tough to run," explained Valley head coach Paul Troth. "It's hard to get any continuity when they do that."
The Vikings also dropped a couple of passes, but it was a fumble early in the second period which put them in a 14-0 hole when senior Jamail Randle scooped the ball up at the 8-yard line and ran it in.
Sophomore Bruce Reyes got Valley's offense going with a 34-yard run, found sophomore Cameron Hope for a 10-yard gain and then scored on an 11-yard keeper.
Evangel threatened again when sophomore Otis Brown ran for 14 and 10 yards and Brimhall completed passes of 13 and 10 yards before senior LaQuentin Black intercepted a throw in the end zone.
The Vikings went to the air, Reyes finding freshman Del'Von Franklin for 12 yards and senior Zavier Steward for 17 before connecting with freshman Seth Martinko -- who was struck by a helmet-to-helmet blow when he turned upfield, which loosed the ball from his grasp.
The pass was ruled incomplete, but the personal foul set Valley up for a 36-yard touchdown reception by sophomore Jonathan Bird III, who shook off one tackler at the 20 and got a downfield block from Martinko en route to the game-tying score with 3:05 left in the half.
Evangel got a break later in the period when officials said Franklin fumbled, after only getting one hand on a swing pass, and Randle recovered. However, a shot at the end zone on the final play of the half was intercepted by junior Tyler Davis.
"We came out maybe a little too amped up and they had a lot going for them," senior defensive end Tripp Thomas assessed the Vikings' early troubles. "We ended up calming down and coming out and playing a great game."
The Crusaders drove into Valley territory midway through the third quarter, but -- with their kicker injured during the first half -- went for it on fourth down and 11. Phillips came up with sack for a 20-yard loss, which gave the Vikings possession on the EU 46.
A Reyes pass went off the hands of junior Alex Benson at the 15-yard line, but deflected to senior Chris Owens, who took it the rest of the way for Valley's first lead.
Evangel wasn't behind for long, Meyer ripping off a game-tying 55-yard dash.
The teams traded interceptions early in the final frame, the Vikings getting the better of the exchange with Davis' 25-yard return. Owens caught a 38-yard pass to put Valley back in front with 12 minutes to go.
The Vikings clamped down on Evangel's running game, and then brought pressure on Brimhall, forcing an intentional grounding penalty at the EU 1-yard line and getting two sacks.
"It's the first time we've been able to get back and rush the passer this season," Thomas said. "It was nice to be able to get out and have fun."
Valley pounded the ground down the stretch, getting an insurance score on Steward's 41-yard sprint with 1:32 remaining. A pick by junior Russell Nuenie in the final minute sealed the win.
"Fortunately we responded well to adversity," Troth said. "That was good to see."
Brimhall threw for 248 yards to lead the Crusaders (7-3, 6-2 HAAC), but suffered a career-high five interceptions.
The Vikings (9-0, 8-0) clinched at least a share of their third HAAC crown, and can claim an outright championship for the first time since 2006 with a win over Central Methodist in the regular season finale Saturday.
That would also give Valley the opportunity to stay home throughout the playoffs -- if it continues to win, of course -- since No. 1 Marion (Ind.) fell to St. Xavier (Ill.), 23-6.
"We still have to finish off business next week," Kelly declared.