Wayne State still had plenty to celebrate after its surprising run to the Division II championship game came up short of a title.
Unranked and unheralded, they navigated four straight road playoff games before losing to Pittsburg State 35-21 on Saturday in a wild game packed with big special teams plays.
“Our goal was to win the national championship,” safety Jeremy Jones said. “Obviously that didn't happen but I'm not going to let this one loss taint the whole season.”
The Warriors (12-4), from Detroit, couldn't complete a comeback, giving up Jason Spradling's 4-yard touchdown run with 2:38 left.
Zac Dickey passed for 190 yards and rushed for 68 and the Gorillas (13-1) also blocked a punt and scored on a blocked field goal to claim their second national title and first since 1991. The Kansas school snapped a streak of three title-game losses, the last coming in 2004.
The Warriors were trying to become the first unranked team to win the title.
“It's been a great run,” Wayne State quarterback Mickey Mohner said. “No one thought we should be in the playoffs. No one thought we could win in the playoffs. We came in and won four tough games on the road.”
Toney Davis, who rushed for 178 yards and two touchdowns, had closed the gap on a 1-yard score with 5:11 left.
Dickey set up Spradling's touchdown with a 53-yard pass to Andrew Castaneda.
Jeremy Jones returned the kick into Pittsburg State territory but Elijah Olabode picked off a pass in the end zone.
Dickey, who had more than 2,000 yards passing and 1,000 rushing this season, completed 10 of 16 passes with a touchdown and two interceptions. He also ran 16 times.
John Brown had five catches for 99 yards for the Gorillas.
Mohner and the passing game never got going. He completed 7 of 16 passes for 59 yards and was intercepted three times — including picks on his first two attempts.
“I just didn't get the job done in the passing game,” Mohner said. “It's nobody's fault but my own.”
Davis carried most of the load for the Warriors offense, rushing 28 times. Fellow 1,300-yard rusher Josh Renel returned the opening kick 93 yards for a touchdown but was on crutches in the second half after sustaining an injury to his right foot.
Leading receiver Troy Burrell also sustained a broken left collarbone and had only one catch for 13 yards.
“We're not complete without Josh,” Wayne State coach Paul Winters said. “Troy and Josh have excellent abilities and it's hard to lose talent like that and be effective.”
Pittsburg State surged to a 27-14 halftime lead with two touchdowns in the final 6:28 — and maintained it going into the fourth quarter.
The Gorillas couldn't cash in on two opportunities to potentially put the game away. Dickey's long fourth-and-1 pass after the blocked punt fell incomplete in Wayne State territory late in the third. Then his high throw was tipped into Antwon Robinson's arms for an interception inside the 10 on the next possession in the fourth.
Wayne State responded with a 15-play drive consuming nearly 7 minutes, with Davis covering the final yard untouched for a touchdown with 5:11 left to make it 27-21.
Pittsburg State thought it had recovered a fumble in the end zone two plays earlier but replay showed Davis was down when the ball squirted out.
“I knew I was down,” Davis said. “Actually, I thought it was a touchdown.”
The Gorillas, meanwhile, more than balanced out their early kick coverage breakdown.
Paul Robinson — whose earlier interception set up a touchdown — smothered a field goal attempt and Aries Herrion scooped it up for an 80-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
It was the first score on a blocked field goal in the championship game.
“That was a huge turning point in the game,” Beck said. “It goes from they're going to get three points to us getting seven.”
Then, Dickey hit a wide-open Bristan Kelley in the end zone with 15 seconds left. Dickey had converted third downs with a 46-yard pass to Brown and a 16-yard run.
The score came right after a false start penalty spoiled a first-and-goal from the 1.
The game started out in even wilder fashion, with three turnovers in the first seven plays and each quarterback throwing an interception on his first pass.
Not to mention Renel's roaring start.
“A lot of people might panic after the opening kickoff comes back for a touchdown comes back for a touchdown, but this football team has been extremely resilient all year,” Beck said. “They never give up.”