(Grambling, La.) – The defending champions were pushed in the second half of the 64th Annual NAIA Football National Championship Game, but prevailed in the end.
Despite being outscored 24-19 in the second half, No. 1 Morningside (Iowa) (14-0) came away with a 40-38 victory to win its second red banner in program history and complete a second straight unbeaten season.
“Last year, we had all those superstars, and then those guys were gone and it was kind of like ‘we can do it without those guys,” said Morningside Head Coach Steve Ryan. “I’m so proud of those guys and what they’ve accomplished.”
Down 21-7 at halftime, the Marian (Ind.) Knights (12-1) came out of the locker room strong and outscored the Mustangs 14-12 in the quarter.
Ryley Pease picked off Joe Dolincheck on the first drive of the second half, which Marian turned into points when Johnny William hauled in a 25-yard pass from Ethan Darter with 10:10 left in the third to get within a touchdown. During the drive, William also converted a third-and-nine with an 11-yard reception.
With 6:42 remaining in the third, Morningside answered with Dolincheck’s fourth touchdown pass of the night, a seven-yarder to Austin Johnson, his 10th of the season to close a 10-play, 85-yard drive.
Dolincheck was named the Most Outstanding Offensive Player of the game, completing 30-of-44 for 304 yards and six touchdowns, with just one interception against a Marian defense that led the NAIA in pass defense.
“It means a lot to me for the seniors to come out and win the national championship in their last game,” said Dolincheck. “I couldn’t do this without my teammates, to not get sacked against an awesome defense, our receivers had six touchdowns and got open.”
Marian quarterback Ethan Darter answered with a 54-yard TD pass to William to get the Knights within six with 5:37 left in the third.
Reid Jurgensmeier’s second TD reception came with 3:10 left in the third on a fourth and goal from the five, but the two-point conversion rush by Arnijae Ponder came up short to keep the advantage at 12.
“I thought that was the play that decided the game for us,” said Ryan. “They were coming back and we needed to score; I thought that touchdown was huge for us.”
Jurgensmeier made seven catches for 12 yards and also had a 22-yard TD reception from Dolincheck with 7:33 left in the second, which gave the Mustangs a 14-0 lead. Jurgensmeier also converted a 3rd and 21 with a 27-yard pickup during the drive.
“Our offensive line was lights out, and that was our concern coming into the game,” said Ryan. “Joe responded really well, threw some great strikes and made some great plays, what an awesome year he had.”
Darter’s top target during the day was William with 10 catches for 161 yards and four touchdowns, with his third TD reception of the game coming on the first play of the fourth quarter to get the Knights within five at 33-28 after the four-yard reception.
Darter started slow, completing just 2-of-8 in the first quarter with an interception, but was 6-of-7 in the third quarter for 135 yards and two TDs. He finished 19-of-43 for 291 yards and five touchdowns.
The Knights picked up three more points on a 34-yard field goal by Matt Plesac with 6:52 to play.
After the defense forced a punt, Marian was unable to convert on fourth down from their own 22-yard line with 3:23 to play. Morningside took advantage and pushed the lead back to nine on a four-yard touchdown pass to Bo Els.
Marian narrowed the game with 1:04 left on a diving one-handed catch by William to get the deficit back to two. The Knights attempted an onside kick, but it was recovered by Els to close the game.
The Morningside defense limited Marian to more than 100 yards less than their season rushing average at just 123 net rushing yards; the Knights came into the matchup ninth nationally in rushing per game.
“I think our defense played lights out,” said Ryan. “Our coaches had a great game plan, but then in the second half it turned into a little bit of a shootout, but our defense played lights out.”
Morningside’s Deion Clayborne was the Most Outstanding Defensive Player of the Game, making seven tackles, and breaking up five passes.
“It feels great to get another national championship,” said Clayborne. “It’s a credit to our defensive line, our linebackers that set us up for success and to make plays, we just had to execute and that’s what we did today.”
The Mustangs have now won 29 consecutive contests, and have lost just once in their last 43 games