Florence, Ala. Pittsburg State wasn’t about to get comfy and cautious so close to ending a 20-year quest for a second national title.
Clinging to a six-point lead in the final five minutes, Zac Dickey launched a 53-yard pass to Andrew Castaneda to set up the decisive touchdown in the Gorillas’ 35-21 victory over Wayne State on Saturday.
“You come here and try to win it,” Pittsburg State coach Tim Beck said. “You don’t come here and try to hang on and hope you win it.”
Especially not when you’ve come to the brink and fallen short the last three times.
Dickey passed for 190 yards and rushed for 68 and the Gorillas (13-1) also turned two blocked kicks into touchdowns to claim their second national title and first since 1991 when Beck was an assistant. The Kansas school snapped a streak of three title-game losses, the last coming in 2004.
The Warriors (12-4) had navigated four playoff road games but the team from Detroit fell short of becoming 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, closed the gap on a one-yard score with 5:11 left.
Wayne State’s defense then couldn’t keep Dickey & Co. from the end zone.
Jason Spradling scored the clinching four-yard touchdown with 2:38 left after the long ball by Dickey, who bailed himself out of potential hot water on his mother’s birthday.
“I hadn’t gotten her a gift yet,” he said.
Jeremy Jones returned the kick into Pittsburg State territory but Elijah Olabode picked off a pass in the end zone.
Lawrence native Jared Vinoverski, a Pitt State sophomore safety, was credited with a tackle assist in the title game.
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.