Texas A&M-Commerce wins NCAA Division II title

Texas A&M-Commerce Lions quarterback Luis Perez (12) is pressured by West Florida Argonauts defensive lineman John Williamson (30) during the first quarter of their NCAA Division II college football championship game in Kansas City, Kan., Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann)

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) Texas A&M-Commerce had this celebration planned for a long time.

A year after watching the Division II title game from the stands, Luis Perez led the Lions to their first NCAA Division II title and second football championship, throwing for 323 yards and two touchdowns in a 37-27 victory over West Florida on Saturday night at Children’s Mercy Park.

Texas A&M-Commerce (14-1) also won the 1972 NAIA championship.

”No words can describe it,” Perez said. ”Winning the title, getting the Harlon Hill (Award) and graduating in the same week, you can’t script it any better.”

Perez said before the game that he had driven up to watch the 2016 championship game because he had a feeling that he and his teammates had a chance to be here tonight. He certainly did his part to make sure that happened.

”We were a team of destiny,” Perez said. ”We just believed it (all season).”

Perez completed 23 of 30 for 323 yards and two touchdowns. The Harlon Hill Award winner is the first quarterback to throw for more than 300 yards in the title game since 2005. He finished the season with 4,999 passing yards.

West Florida (11-4) had no reason to be embarrassed. The Argonauts were playing in the 26th game in the two-year history of the program.

”I’m extremely proud of our guys, how they continued to fight,” coach Pete Shinnick said. ”I think the type of team we have, every guy on our sideline thought we were going to get the onside kick (after cutting the lead to 10 points). That’s what I love about this team, and that’s why it’s been fun.

”These guys have worked extremely hard to put a second-year program into the national championship. I’m extremely proud of our team. We’ve got a bunch of guys who are hurting right now, but they’ve done a lot of good.”

Mike Beaudry was 22 of 48 for 252 yards and a touchdown.

”They’re good up front,” Beaudry said, ”and they did a really good job of getting pressure. It’s on me to slow things down and work my progressions. It’s something I can do better at.”

E.J. Thompson’s 9-yard touchdown run put the Lions up 27-17 midway through the third quarter. Following a West Florida field goal, Perez hit Marquis Wimberly with a 40-yard pass to open up a two-touchdown lead at the end of the third quarter.

Commerce dominated the stats, outgaining the Argonauts 477 to 276 in total yards, but four Lions turnovers kept West Florida in the game. The Argos managed just 13 points off those turnovers.

”It was a fantastic game played by two really good football teams,” Commerce coach Colby Carthel said. ”I’m still not sure we’re the two best teams in Division II, but we’re the two best teams that got it done during the playoffs.

”It was a long hard road through the playoffs to get to this stage. We made a few more plays than they did to pull out the victory.”

Texas A&M-Commerce opened the game with a 97-yard touchdown drive, capped by a 50-yard scoring strike from Perez to Shawn Hooks. Following a failed Lions fake punt, West Florida responded with a 10-play, 49-yard drive. Chris Schwarz plunged in from the 1 for the tying score.

It didn’t take long for Commerce to respond, as Reggie Kincade returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. It was the first kickoff return touchdown in the championship game since 2012. The Lions got two field goals to stretch the lead to 20-7 before a 20-yard touchdown from Beaudry to Antoine Griffin cut the lead to 20-14 at halftime.

NOTES: The two sides carried two of the longest active streaks in college football into the game. The Lions had the longest at nine games. West Florida was tied for the fourth longest at six games. … West Florida was the third unranked team to play for the national title. All three have lost in the title game.