DULUTH, Minn. -- Grand Valley State wasn’t always a Division II football powerhouse. Before winning four national championships in five seasons it had to realize and believe they were that dominant, so said Wayne State head coach Paul Winters.
Traveling to and beating No. 9 Minnesota-Duluth 31-25 in the national quarterfinals Dec. 3 and having already upset two top-20 teams, the Wayne State Warriors perhaps realized just what they are: a championship program.
“A lot of (our) guys, as young guys, witnessed Grand Valley go to the final four or whatever they did, and they were really good,” Winters said days prior of the game. “And they … realize that, ‘Hey, we’ve grown and now we’re really good.’ So hopefully we realize, ‘OK, we’ve got three tough games left, but we’re good enough to win all three games.”
One down, two road games to go.
“We prefer that at this point,” Winters said after the Duluth game.
The ongoing theme is “a Warrior’s home is the battlefield.” The sixth-seeded Warriors now travel “home” to Winston-Salem Dec. 10 for a chance to play for a national championship. But it’s been a long journey to get to this point.
During the first quarter of the first-round “Snow Bowl” at St. Cloud State, the Warriors quickly fell behind 21-6. Players and coaches weren’t sure of their place in the field of 24.
“I think in a lot of ways we went into that St. Cloud game and we just didn’t know,” Winters said. “We didn’t know we could play with them. … And then we got out there and it was like, ‘Hey we’re bigger, stronger and faster than these guys. And I think that was the same way with (Nebraska)-Kearney, and it can be the same way this Saturday.”
Perhaps it was this self-doubt that resulted in Wayne State’s three regular-season losses, including the season-finale heart-breaker versus Findlay, Nov. 12. Following the game, with thoughts on next season the coaching staff could only wonder what went wrong. After all, it was expected by everyone this was the season Wayne State would break through to the next level.
“I think that what happens with a football team is they get praised, and, as much as as they don’t want it to, it hurts them and it affects them,” Winters said immediately following his team’s third loss. “And they don’t necessarily perform to the praise that they continue to get.”
Three wins later, Wayne State was able to break through when nobody was expecting it. And now, even today, no one expects WSU to move on. According to The Detroit News, Salem coach Connell Maynor proclaimed in July his team would go 15-0 and win a championship. Things like this is just the way Winters wants it.
“I’m more hoping that our guys understand, ‘Hey, we’re possibly better than these guys and we’re gunna have success and we’re not going to be shocked by it.’” he said.
Instead, Wayne State shocked the Division II world and the Bulldogs of Duluth and now move into the final four.
*Tale of two halves*
The local news headlines could write themselves prior to kickoff. Duluth all-star receiver D.J. Winfield returned to the football field for the first time in a year. He served the terms of his suspension having failed a random drug test after a playoff game in 2010. The Bulldogs eventually won their second championship in three seasons. It appeared Winfield wanted another.
By playing Dec. 3 he forfeited his final season of eligibility. It’s unclear what his decision was driven by, whether it was a conscience or subconscious assumption his team would win or he just wanted to play for himself and his teammates.
An emotional UMD head coach Bob Nielsen said he and his team loved the embattled playmaker. And for a while, all of Duluth fell back in love when he recorded 233 all-purpose yards, including an 87-yard kickoff return touchdown.
He was a factor, enough of one for WSU to squib its kickoffs for the rest of the game. But he wasn’t as important as Wayne State receiver Troy Burrell was to his team.
A frustrating first half, in which the defense led by Ed Viverette's three sacks (five for WSU in the first 30 minutes) and a blocked punt, ended with the Warriors up 7-3 at the break. It was remarkable seeing as a struggling offense managed just 18 snaps compared to Duluth’s 41.
It was a different story in the second half. The Warriors broke out. Example? Their third quarter consisted of 27 plays and 17 points in more than 14 minutes of possession-time. UMD managed 3 plays in 42 seconds.
The spark? No. 1.
Burrell found gaps, weaved through defenders and outran his coverage throughout the game. He finished with 11 catches for 163 and two touchdowns. One touchdown came immediately following a fourth-down coversion inside the UMD 40. Quarterback Mickey Mohner (15-for-21 pasing, 190 yards, 2 TDs, no INTs) heaved the ball into the endzone where the ball found Burrell’s outstretched fingertips. The 38-yard over-the-shoulder catch put the Warriors up by two scores.
WSU kept the Bulldogs at arms-length for the remainder. However, UMD quarterback Chase Vogler (16-for-28 passing, 202 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) still had one last chance for redemption.
With time running down in the fourth, Vogler underthrew Winfield and was intercepted by WSU corner Aaron Cornette. Wayne State was forced to punt (which was partially or nearly blocked) and the Bulldogs would have to drive the field without timeouts -- and they almost did.
Vogler sent a Hail Mary into the endzone as time expired. WSU defensive back Antwon Robinson knocked it down. The Warriors hung on.
Perhaps for the first time in Wayne State’s history, a lot of people are hanging on to every moment of the Warriors’ run.