As the final seconds ticked off the clock early Saturday night in this NCAA Division II national semifinal, the University of West Florida football team began its celebration, overwhelmed with joy that it was moving on to play for the championship.
On a day more fit for a polar bear than a football game here in mid-Michigan, the Argonauts were cold-blooded rather than fazed by the freezing weather, most notably in the fourth quarter.
It was there that they forced three fumbles on three consecutive possessions while Austin Reed threw a pair of touchdown strikes to propel the 20th-ranked Argos to a 28-14 victory over second-ranked Ferris State at Top Taggart Field in Big Rapids.
Next Stop: the Lone Star State and a date with Minnesota State on Saturday in the 2 p.m. title game at McKinney ISD Stadium.
The Argos trailed 14-7 early in the second half and were down 14-10 going into the fourth against a Bulldogs team determined to eat up clock running the ball.
UWF never panicked.
“We know the kind of team we have, we know the kind of players we have,” said UWF quarterback Austin Reed during a post game interview on ESPN3. “We know that it’s eventually going to work out and we were gonna get in the end zone.”
UWF has handed three unbeaten teams their first loss of the season in consecutive weeks during this remarkable playoff journey. It has also defeated three top 10 teams, all on the road, including the top two in the nation.
FSU (12-1) was the latest victim.
The Bulldogs took a 14-7 lead early in the third on powerful 11-yard run by Dion Earls.
Forcing a three-and-out on UWF’s possession, the Bulldogs went back to their run game but couldn’t hang onto the ball.
A fumble near midfield led to an Austin Williams field goal, cutting the FSU lead to 14-10 with 5:36 left in the third.
Three more fumbles followed in the fourth against an always opportunistic UWF defense and the Argos cashed in each time.
A second field goal by Williams pulled UWF within one at 14-13 and the Argos went in front for good when Reed connected with Tate Lehtio an 18-yard scoring strike with 10:01 to play. Reed also hit Lehtio on the conversion pass to make it 21-13.
It was the Argos’ first lead since the opening quarter when Reed hooked up with Lehtio for a 7-0 lead.
Navarre’s own Quentin Randolph provided insurance for the Argos with 6:59 to go, snagging a 6-yard touchdown pass from Reed that put UWF by two scores. It was the former walk-on’s eighth touchdown grab in the last six games.
The Bulldogs fumbled again on their ensuing possession. UWF forced six turnovers in all, tying a school record.
The Argos have won 12 of their last 13 and are 8-0 in playoff road games. This will be their second championship appearance in the last three seasons.
UWF lost 37-27 to Texas A&M Commerce two years ago in the title game in just its second year of existence. The Argos went 6-5 last season after starting the year ranked second and have been on a mission this season to finish what they started in 2017.
The Argos will now face the fourth-ranked Mavericks (14-0), who destroyed Slippery Rock 58-15 in their semifinal game Saturday. Both teams will be looking to win their first title.
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