FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) – For a couple of seconds, the Division II championship was agonizingly up in the air.

Then, the ball came down and Grand Valley State made one last tackle to preserve a 21-17 win over Northwest Missouri State and claim its third Division II title in four years.

“This was the ultimate game,” Lakers coach Chuck Martin said.

First, Brandon Langston caught a 35-yard touchdown pass from Cullen Finnerty with 4:25 left to finally ignite an offense that hadn’t done much.

Then, Northwest Missouri answered with an 81-yard drive and a last-second play that nearly worked.

After a sack left the Bearcats with fourth-and-15 from the 22 with a second left, Josh Lamberson rolled right and hit Raphael Robinson inside the 5 on the opposite side of the field.

Robinson spun, but Tommy Miller and Joe Ballard brought him down 4 yards short to end the 81-yard drive.

“It was amazing,” said Finnerty, who passed for 172 yards and ran for two touchdowns. “We were just fortunate the guy didn’t fall across the goal line.”

Grand Valley (13-0) also won titles in 2002 and 2003, and was ranked No. 1 for the final eight weeks for the regular season.

Northwest Missouri (11-4) was the first team to win four straight road playoff games, but lost for the first time in three championship game appearances. The Bearcats made the championship game with Robinson’s only touchdown catch of the season, a 3-yarder with 23 seconds left to beat North Alabama the previous week, also at Braly Municipal Stadium.

No wonder coach Mel Tjeerdsma practically assumed Robinson would score and his team would pull out another improbable win.

“I felt like we were going to win the game until he didn’t get in the end zone,” Tjeerdsma said. “I didn’t have any doubts.”

Finnerty moved Grand Valley 82 yards after taking over midway through the fourth quarter. He converted three third-down plays on the drive. On third-and-4, he hit Langston on a slant pattern, and the receiver raced 35 yards for a score with 4:25 to play.

“They gave me an inch of space and I got great blocks from Antoine Trent and Jeremy Cochrane,” Langston said. “I had the easy part. I just had to catch it and run down the field.” Lamberson completed five consecutive passes to move the Bearcats downfield. They made it to the 17 but he was chased out of bounds by Rory Steinbach and Justin Ulberg for a loss on third down with a second remaining.

Northwest Missouri used its last timeout to set up the final play. Robinson was wide open briefly, but the defense swarmed after the ball and kept him out of the end zone.

“I was very confident,” Lamberson said. “That’s been the motto of our team – our backs are against the wall. And they’ve been against the wall all year. So when we got in that huddle, it was like last week.

“We were very confident that we were going to move the ball down the field and score.”

Lamberson set a championship game record for completions, going 33-of-49 for 326 yards and a touchdown. Tight end Mike Peterson had career-highs of nine catches for 150 yards, including a 61-yarder – the longest play given up by Grand Valley this season – and a 30-yard touchdown.

“He was running through our defense,” Martin said. “No one runs through (our defense).”

Northwest Missouri had taken a 17-14 lead on Tommy Frevert’s 35-yard field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter, set up by Peterson’s 61-yarder.

Then, Scott Greene pushed a 34-yard field goal attempt wide right but Grand Valley wasn’t done yet.

“They were grinding and we were grinding,” said Martin, the defensive coordinator on the first two championship teams. “We hung in there and hung in there.”

AP-ES-12-10-05 2101EST

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