FLORENCE, Ala. — First-timer Wayne State and playoff veteran Pittsburg State have overcome a lot to reach the Division II championship game.
They have just one more hurdle to clear Saturday at Braly Stadium: Each other.
Wayne State (12-3) has had to win four straight road games in its first playoff appearance, joining Delta State last year as the only unranked team to make the title game.
"We've played four playoff games against good football teams," Warriors coach Paul Winters said. "I don't think we're intimidated or overwhelmed by the situation.
"It's been a very, very fun ride."
Pittsburg State (12-1) trailed 10-0 and 9-0 after the first quarter in its first two playoff games, then routed Delta State 49-23 last week despite committing five turnovers.
"That just doesn't happen in the championship game," Pittsburg State coach Tim Beck said.
The Gorillas program and Beck are playoff veterans, but the current players don't have much more postseason experience than Wayne State.
This is Pittsburg State's 17th playoff appearance and fifth trip to the championship game, but the Gorillas are coming off a two-year drought. They are 1-3 in the title game with the lone victory coming over Jacksonville State in 1991.
"The thing you have to do is enjoy it while you're here and have fun but every once in awhile step back and refocus and remember why here and what you're here for," said Beck, in his second year as head coach and 25th with the program.
Based on pedigree, this might seem like a mismatch, especially since Pittsburg State finished the regular season ranked No. 7 while Wayne State barely made the playoffs as the lowest-seeded team in its region after a 43-42 loss to Findlay in the finale.
Then again, the past 10 championship games have been decided by seven points or less. That includes Delta State's 20-17 loss to Minnesota-Duluth last season on a field goal as time expired.
Now, Wayne State is trying to join the 1996 Northern Colorado squad as the only three-loss team to win a Division II title.
"They're playing with an extreme amount of confidence right now," Beck said. "You can tell that they're very well coached. They do some very unique things defensively. They're playing very hard and aggressive and fast on defense. You can tell they're just an overall very good football team."
It helped that two of Wayne State's top defenders — defensive end Greg Hasse and linebacker Ed Viverette — returned from injuries in time for the playoffs.
"Once we got our guys back from a health standpoint, we were a better team," Winters said.
Wayne State has thrived on balance offensively. Toney Davis has run for 1,379 yards and 20 touchdowns while Josh Renel has 1,343 yards and 14 TDs on the ground.
Quarterback Mickey Mohner has passed for 25 touchdowns while receiver Troy Burrell has 86 catches for 1,620 yards and 15 TDs.
They'll face a defense led by linebacker Nate Dreiling, who has 124 tackles and seven interceptions.
Pittsburg State's biggest offensive weapon is dual-threat quarterback Zac Dickey. Dickey has passed for 2,100 yards and 16 touchdowns while rushing for 1,097 yards and another 10 scores.
He'll have to be wary of Wayne State safety Jeremy Jones, who has picked off nine passes.
Pittsburg State has already avenged its only loss of the season by beating Washburn to open the playoffs. Wayne State stumbled into the field despite losing three of its last five games.
The Warriors have rebounded quite nicely after making the playoffs.
"I said, 'Hey listen, we're in the tournament, we've got a chance to compete, let's go compete,'" Winters said. "And our guys have done that very well."