‘Finest hour’: Late touchdown lifts Bisons into DII semis

From left: Harding's Aldrin Wilson, Tirrell Johnson and Austin Bailey chase down Grand Valley State's Cade Peterson during a NCAA Division II national quarterfinal game at home against Grand Valley State on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023. See more photos at arkansasonline.com/123harding/ (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)
From left: Harding's Aldrin Wilson, Tirrell Johnson and Austin Bailey chase down Grand Valley State's Cade Peterson during a NCAA Division II national quarterfinal game at home against Grand Valley State on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023. See more photos at arkansasonline.com/123harding/ (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)


SEARCY -- A few days after his team beat Central Missouri in dramatic fashion last week, Harding Coach Paul Simmons had a heart-to-heart talk with his players and asked them if they truly knew the ins and outs of greatness.

If he didn't get a definitive answer from his team during that sit-down, it's a pretty safe bet that he got one Saturday afternoon.

Cole Keylon provided the game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter, and Grant Ennis booted what turned out to be the game-winning extra point as Harding came from behind to stun perennial power Grand Valley (Mich.) State 7-6 in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division II playoffs Saturday afternoon at First Security Stadium.

The victory was unlike any of the previous 12 for the Bisons (13-0) this season, particularly because it trailed for nearly 40 minutes. But just like they've done all season, Simmons' group found a way to win.

Blake Delacruz carried 28 times for 78 yards for the top-seeded Bisons, who'll host North Carolina's Lenoir-Rhyne (13-1), a No. 4 seed, next Saturday at 11 a.m. in the national semifinals. Fellow No. 1 seed Colorado School of the Mines (13-0) will play Pennsylvania's Kutztown (12-2) in the other semifinal.

 

"This was the Bisons' finest hour," Simmons said after Harding won in the quarterfinals for the first time since 2017. "We talked earlier in the week, and I said, 'Men, do you understand where greatness comes from? What makes something great?" My answer was for it to be great, it's got to be really, really hard, and [Saturday] was really, really hard. And then, you've got to do it together.

"It's about loving each other and forgetting about your own ego, the way you feel, whatever it is, and just lay it on the line for one another."

That line was razor thin for the Bisons and their Flexbone offensive attack for more than three quarters. Harding came up empty on its first seven possessions of the game against a Grand Valley State defense that ranked third in Division II against the run entering the game.

However, the eighth drive proved to be fulfilling for the Bisons.

After forcing a three and out, Harding took over from its 27 with 12:51 to go in the game and methodically moved down the field. Along the way, the Bisons converted three key third downs, including one that put them inside the Lakers' 5.

Keylon, who kept drives alive by picking up two first downs himself, finally capped the march with a 1-yard dive on fourth down with 3:52 remaining. Ennis would then put the Bisons on top with his point-after kick.

"Defensively, we went after the option and just played incredible for four quarters," an emotional Grand Valley State Coach Scott Wooster said. "Obviously, we gave up the late drive. It'd be interesting to see where that ball went on fourth and 1. From my vantage point, [the ball] didn't cross, but that's the game.

"Couldn't be prouder, couldn't be more excited about the way we played, and the way our guys stuck together, especially when it got hard, when it got tough."

Grand Valley State (11-2), which has won four national championships and is the all-time winningest program in Division II, made it tough on the Bisons from the start by limiting their production on the ground. But Harding's defense was just as stingy and held an equally dangerous Lakers offense 222 yards below their season average.

"To hold an offense, as explosive as they are, to two field goals, and 2 for 12 on third downs, I just can't say enough," Simmons said, whose defense gave up more than 500 yards and 34 points a week ago against Central Missouri. "I thought [the defensive line] was so dominant. We were definitely not thrilled with what happened last week. ... I think we'll rest better [Saturday].

"I thought the defense had the greatest day they've ever had. It was awesome."

Grand Valley State did manage to get the ball back twice after Keylon's score but turned it over on downs both times, with the latter occurring with 1:09 left in the game.

The first half was also all about defense.

Harding had just 78 yards total and punted four times. To put that into perspective, the most punts the Bisons had in a game all season was four against Henderson State and Arkansas Tech.

The Lakers were able to generate 153 yards over the first two quarters, but 104 of those came on scoring drives. Grand Valley State covered 50 yards in 13 plays and got a 48-yard field goal from Josh Gorball to take a 3-0 lead with 13:12 left in the second quarter. Gorball would later hit 27-yard field goal on the final play of the first half to complete a nine-play, 54-yard march.

"Their defense was fantastic," Simmons said of Grand Valley State. "They made every yard a war, but I just believe in our young men so much. I think our guys walked out of the locker room at halftime, and there was a belief that if we kept swinging, kept hammering, kept fighting, we were going to figure out a way."

The second half featured much of the same for both teams, although the Bisons did miss out on a scoring opportunity. After stopping a fake punt attempt by the Lakers at their 47, Harding drove inside Grand Valley State's 25 but had a 40-yard field goal sail wide right early in the fourth quarter.

But Harding did eventually find a way to crack the Lakers, and now finds itself within a game of playing for a national title.

"I think a game like this, it really does speak to how we prepare through the week," said Harding defensive lineman Dre Hall, who had two sacks. "We've got great coaches that care about us and just put us in the right spots. Then it's on us to make the play.

"Everybody's good when it gets down to this time in the season so when it's time to make a play, you've got to make a play."


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