By JOHN ZENOR
AP Sports Writer
FLORENCE, Ala. — Trevor Adams was a freshman spectator during Northwest Missouri State’s last national title run.
He finished his career by leading the Bearcats to another one.
Adams passed for 277 yards and three touchdowns and Northwest Missouri raced to a fast start in a 43-28 victory over Lenoir-Rhyne on Saturday in the Division II championship game.
The Bearcats (15-0) won their fourth national title to match Grand Valley State for second-most behind North Dakota State’s five. They’re the fifth team to go 15-0, managing that feat for a second time.
“Being able to finally make it back is really, really neat,” said Adams, who was in a redshirt year when Northwest Missouri won in 2009. “It’s huge because the legacy that’s there, it’s been a strong one for many years. To be a championship team, a part of that, is just something special. I know our team is going to be excited about it for the rest of our lives.”
Lenoir-Rhyne (13-2) fell short in only the one-time NAIA champion’s second appearance in the Division II playoffs.
Adams completed 15 of 25 of passes with touchdown throws of 29 and 30 yards to Reuben Thomas. The pair hooked up for their first score on fourth-and-7 on the opening drive and the Bearcats were up 17-0 after 10 minutes.
“I thought we needed to be aggressive in the first 20 plays,” Northwest Missouri coach Adam Dorrel said. “We tried to fire most of our bullets early in the first half.”
Lenoir-Rhyne’s spread flexbone offense couldn’t catch up, despite a quick spark from backup quarterback and playoff star Josh Justice when he came in midway through the third quarter.
It was a record eighth title game appearance for Northwest Missouri. It capped a huge year for football in Maryville, Mo.
“It’s pretty cool,” said Dorrel, an alumnus and Maryville native. “Maryville’s 60-0 in football from junior high through the university. I don’t know if any other town in America can say that. That means a lot to me.”
The Bearcats, who had “Family” on the back of their jerseys instead of individual names, remained in control throughout after the fast start.
Lenoir-Rhyne had won 13 consecutive games since dropping the opener, despite losing quarterback Miles Freeman to a leg injury during the regular season and having backup Teverrius Jones go down with a neck injury in the second round of the playoffs.
Jones returned to start this game after Justice came up big in all three playoff wins, but never got the offense going.
Lenoir-Rhyne fumbled five times, losing two.
Jones sprained a knee in the third quarter, bringing a gimpy Justice into the game. The senior didn’t start after injuring his left ankle in practice on Wednesday and wearing a boot since.
“What guts,” Houston said. “To go out and execute the way he did in the second half with the pain goes back to the reason he’s been successful the last three weeks.”
Justice said he couldn’t even walk in a boot Friday morning. He savored the chance to play such a big role late in his final season.
“It’s been a great experience,” Justice said. “It’s been extremely exciting and yet humbling, too, just to sit back and see that I was third-string and I didn’t think I was going to be playing again.”
On his second play, Justice managed a 59-yard touchdown to Greyson Wells, who bobbled the ball before heading to the end zone to cut the deficit to 29-14. Wells also caught a 34-yarder in the fourth quarter on running back Corron Boston’s first pass of the season.
The nation’s top running team still produced 273 rushing yards, 105 shy of their season average. Jarrod Spears led the way with 13 carries for 108 yards.
Lenoir-Rhyne hadn’t attempted a pass in a 42-14 semifinal win over West Chester, when Justice ran for 175 yards and three touchdowns and converted three two-point attempts.
Justice couldn’t keep his playoff magic going but was 3-of-3 passing for 69 yards. His touchdown pass was the team’s first completion of the game and nearly matched the senior’s 63 passing yards coming into the game.
Justice had a 1-yard touchdown run with 1:04 left for the final margin.
The game ended a 28-year run for the Division II championship at Braly Municipal Stadium.
The championship game will move to Kansas City, Mo., next season after 28 years at Braly.