MARYVILLE, Mo. -- Reuben Thomas caught seven passes for 143 yards and two touchdowns to elevate Northwest Missouri State to a 27-13 victory over Grand Valley State in an NCAA Division II semifinal on Saturday.
The Bearcats (14-0) advanced to their eighth national championship game in program history and will face Lenoir-Rhyne in the first meeting between the two programs.
Following a two-turnover first half, the Bearcats mounted two lengthy scoring drives to separate from the Lakers. Trevor Adams found Thomas down the seam for a 43-yard touchdown midway through the fourth quarter that delivered the game's decisive blow.
Adams also hit Thomas for a 28-yard touchdown early in the third quarter to give Northwest a 20-6 lead.
Grand Valley (12-3) struck back with Heath Parling's high-arching 4-yard touchdown strike to tight end Jamie Potts to cut Northwest's lead to 20-13 with 2 seconds remaining in the third stanza.
The Lakers forced a Bearcats punt from the Grand Valley 43-yard line but couldn't convert a potential game-tying drive after Northwest Missouri defensive tackle Bryant Hummel's third-down sack of Parling.
Following the Lakers' final punt, Thomas broke free and gave Northwest Missouri a 3-2 all-time advantage in the momentous series.
Thomas was a one-time Utah State commit before failing to complete enough classes in time for the 2011 season. He spent the past two years out of football, waiting for a chance to continue his career and made his opportunity as junior walk-on pay off handsomely for Northwest against Grand Valley -- the Bearcats' most fearsome playoff nemesis over the past decade.
Saturday represented the fifth meeting between Northwest, champions of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association, and Grand Valley (fourth place in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference). Each game had come in either a national semifinal or a championship game.
Official reviews came into play often in a sloppy first half. After Grand Valley free safety Erik Thompson swung momentum by recovering Adams' fumbled snap as Northwest looked to be attempting a 1-yard quarterback sneak for a score, the Lakers marched deep into Bearcats territory thanks to two reviews.
Initially, officials ruled Parling's third-and-long pass to Potts incomplete, but replays confirmed Potts' right foot came down inbounds for a 29-yard gain. Five plays later, Jamie Pitts juggled an 18-yard pass as he tumbled out of bounds, but a second replay review upheld the questionable grab to move the Lakers to the Bearcats 31.
Grand Valley couldn't capitalize, however. The Lakers ran on third-and-7 and picked up just 1 yard. Joel Schipper, who made two field goals earlier to give Grand Valley a 6-0 first-quarter lead, missed a 34-yard try and gave Northwest another opportunity.
After quickly motoring downfield, the Bearcats committed their third turnover of the half when Grand Valley cornerback Reggie Williams stripped Korey Jackson while attempting to stretch for additional yardage. Officials overturned the close call despite the ball appearing to move just prior to Jackson's knee touching the turf.
Simon Mathiesen kicked a 19-yard field goal to close the sloppy period with Northwest up 10-6.
The national championship game kicks off at 11 a.m., Dec. 21, at Braly Municipal Stadium in Florence, Ala.