Pueblo, Colo. - The third-ranked CSU-Pueblo ThunderWolves fell to #22 Grand Valley State in a back-and-forth game that saw four lead changes and resulted in a 34-30 loss that ended the ThunderWolves' unbeaten season in the second round of the NCAA Division II playoffs.
Grand Valley State played their best defense in the fourth and final quarter, as they managed the clock with the rushing game and held the potent ThunderWolves offense to zero points in the final 21 minutes.
In the end, the ThunderWolves had a couple of chances to win the game, but were halted by an interception and a failed fourth-down conversion on consecutive late fourth quarter drives.
"[Grand Valley] came out and withstood some adversity in the beginning," Head Coach John Wristen said. "They came out and took the lead in the second half, and that's part of playoff football."
The ThunderWolves jumped out to a quick lead early on, scoring on their first possession off the strength of a 52-yard pass from Chris Bonner (Jr., San Diego, Calif.) to Paul Browning (Jr., Widefield, Colo.) on the first play of the game.
The ThunderWolves then took advantage of offensive miscues by Grand Valley State on the next two drives, forcing an interception that led to a field goal and a pair of sacks for Darius Allen (Jr., Pueblo, Colo.) after botched snaps by the Lakers that set up a 29-yard touchdown from Bonner to Browning on a well-designed screen pass.
Allen, already the school record holder for sacks in a season, brought his season total to 18.5 with a school and conference record five sacks on the day.
Grand Valley State refused to go away despite falling into a 16-0 hole in the first quarter, as they stormed back with 13 unanswered points and ultimately took a 27-23 lead at the half, marking the first time the ThunderWolves had trailed at halftime all season.
Chris Bonner had a respectable day that was marred by a late interception despite absorbing several hits courtesy of the Lakers, including a crushing blow that kept him on the turf for several minutes after throwing a 2-yard touchdown pass to Kieren Duncan (So., Goodyear, Ariz.).
Coach John Wristen said afterward that Bonner likely suffered a broken thumb on the play, an injury that hampered his play in the second half and will possibly require surgery.
"What a gutsy performance," Wristen said. "He tried to grip the ball, and we tried getting the running game going, but we needed the play action pass."
Bonner, the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference offensive player of the year, managed to return to the game and finished with 297 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. He broke single game school records in pass completions and pass attempts in the process.
Stephan Dickens (Jr., Aurora, Colo.) brought the ThunderWolves back into the game with a pair of interceptions on consecutive Grand Valley State possessions to start the second half, one of which led to Bonner's third touchdown toss of the game, this time to Stehly Reden (So., Valley Center, Calif.) to give the ThunderWolves the lead 30-27 midway through the third quarter.
However, the ThunderWolves were unable to stop the aerial attack of the Lakers, giving up what turned out to be a decisive 22-yard touchdown pass from Grand Valley State quarterback Heath Parling, his fourth of the day.
Coach Wristen commended Grand Valley State and said with grace that the ThunderWolves' program will come back strong.
"I'm proud of our seniors, I'm proud of CSU-Pueblo and I'm proud of the athletic department," Wristen said.