Trailing Grand Valley State by six, with time ticking away in the fourth quarter, against one of the most ferocious defenses in NCAA Division II football, that drive finally came.
Harding went 73 yards on 15 plays, consuming almost nine minutes, and sophomore quarterback Cole Keylon scored from 1 yard out on fourth down to give the Bisons a 7-6 victory and its second-ever berth in the national semifinals.
The victory came six years to the day after Harding kicked a game-winning field goal to defeat Ferris State, a different Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletics Conference opponent, 16-14 to advance to the 2017 national semifinal.
The Bisons will host Lenoir-Rhyne of the South Atlantic Conference next Saturday in Searcy. Kickoff will be at 11 a.m. local time and the game will air on ESPN+. Tickets will go on sale for season ticket holders Monday and for the general public on Tuesday at 8 a.m.
Harding gained control of the ball at their own 27-yard line with 12:51 left in the game. In its previous seven possessions, the Bisons’ longest drive was 11 plays for 49 yards and resulted in a punt.
After two runs, Harding found itself with 3rd-and-4 at the 33-yard line. The Bisons were just 4-for-13 on third down at that point. The first of three third-down conversions on the drive came on Harding’s only completed pass of the game. Keylon hit slot back Braden Jay over the middle for a 20-yard gain.
Keylon converted the next two third downs himself, rushing for 3 yards on 3rd-and-2 at the Grand Valley 25, and for 7 yards on 3rd-and-3 at the Grand Valley 15. The second of those runs gave Harding 1st-and-goal at the 8.
Fullback Blake Delacruz carried on first down and pounded his way to the 5. Keylon pushed forward for 3 more yards on second down, and Delacruz took it to the 1 on third down.
Following a timeout, Keylon got behind center Levi Pate, right guard Austin Toler and right tackle Jake Dugger to stretch the ball over the goal line.
Senior kicker Grant Ennis, who has made more extra points than every other Division II kicker and more than any other Harding kicker ever, hammered home the game-winner with 3:52 left in the game.
Grand Valley had two more possessions with a chance to get within field-goal range, but Harding’s defense forced turnovers on downs on both drives.
Harding’s defense held Grand Valley State to no touchdowns, 10 first downs, 62 rushing yards and only 222 total yards. The Lakers entered the game averaging 46.9 points, 235.6 rushing yards and 446.4 total yards.
Harding rushed for 205 yards with Delacruz leading the way with 78 yards on 28 carries.
The Bisons had five sacks and nine tackles for loss, broke up five passes and a forced fumble. Linebacker Clark Griffin led HU with eight tackles, including 2.0 TFL, and all three of Dre Hall’s tackles went for losses, including 2.0 sacks. Gage Price, who blocked the potential game-tying extra point in last week’s 35-34 victory over Central Missouri, had a key sack late in the game.