SALT LAKE CITY — In his program's first national championship game appearance in 13 years, first-year Snow College head coach Zac Erekson had a message for his team.
"If you want to be the best, you've got to beat the best," Erekson told the Badgers the night before facing fellow unbeaten Hutchinson Community College.
On Saturday afternoon, the Badgers looked like the best team in the country for a half — but Hutchinson looked like the top-ranked team in the country over the final two quarters.
Anwar Lewis scored two second half touchdowns, and the Blue Dragons won their first national title in the program's 89-year history with a 29-27 win over Snow at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Hutchinson outgained the Badgers 511 yards to 390, including a 278-239 advantage through the air. The Blue Dragons also averaged 5.1 yards per rush to Snow's 4.6, and took advantage of the Badgers' 2-of-9 effort on third down.
Tye Edwards ran for 139 yards and two touchdowns to lead Hutchinson, and quarterbacks Dylan Laible and CJ Ogbonna combined for 278 yards, including 5-for-5 for 128 yards from Ogbonna in the second half.
Lewis finished with 73 yards and two touchdowns for the Blue Dragons (8-0).
Aiming for the program's first national title since 1985, starting quarterback Garrison Beach threw early touchdown passes to Deuce Roberson and Tejhuan Palmer to lift the Badgers to a 14-0 start. The sophomore signal caller completed 11-of-16 passes for 185 yards, two touchdowns and an interception en route to a 14-10 halftime lead before leaving the game in the third quarter with an apparent left leg injury.
The Badgers had fewer than 100 yards from the time Beach went down in the third quarter through Edwards' second touchdown midway through the fourth — but only trailed 29-21.
Backup quarterback Gabe Sweeten, an Orem High alum, capped a six-play, 75-yard drive with a six-yard touchdown scramble to pull the Badgers within two, 29-27 with 4:50 remaining.
That helped Snow force one final possession, 89 yards from the end zone with 1:19 on the clock and no timeouts before an interception sealed the win for Hutchinson.
Sweeten threw for 54 yards and ran for 30 more with a score for the Badgers.
Seth Kaelin added 37 yards on the ground for Snow College. The Skyline High product was one of just six running backs nationally to average 100 or more yards per game, but was held to 4.1 yards per rush on nine carries.
The Badgers held the top-ranked Blue Dragons to a 22-yard field goal until Edwards' 68-yard touchdown romp on his first touch of the second quarter. The sophomore tailback who was named MVP of Hutchinson's first championship game appearance in program history scored his seventh touchdown of the season on the Blue Dragons' second play of the second quarter, after being shut out of the endzone in the first — including a stop on fourth-and-inches in the final minute of the opening frame.
But that was Hutchinson's last touchdown of the first half, as Snow's defense forced several big plays, including a pair of second-quarter sacks by West Jordan product Owen Faamore and Dixie High alum, en route to the 14-10 halftime lead.
Moments after Beach's injury, Hutchinson had all the momentum — but San Diego native Kieonte Scott ripped the moment right back.
The freshman BYU target with offers from close to half of the Pac-12 hauled in an interception on the Blue Dragons' next possession, and Mekhi Kimble capped off a six-play, 60-yard drive with an 11-yard touchdown to stretch the Badgers' lead to 21-10 with 4:50 left in the third.
But the lead wouldn't last, as Hutchinson outscored the Badgers 19-6 down the stretch, including a pair of scores from Lewis on either side of the fourth-quarter break that gave the Blue Dragons their first lead of the game.
The title game appearance highlights a banner year for the Ephraim-based junior college, led by the women's volleyball program's national runner-up finish at the NJCAA Tournament in April and top-10 performances in men's and women's soccer as well as football, all played in a season pushed to the brink — or at least, the spring — by the pandemic.
Later Saturday evening, the Badgers' women's soccer team held off No. 5 Iowa Western 8-7 in a penalty shootout to stay unbeaten in pool play at the NJCAA national tournament in Evans, Georgia.
Amanda Bryan, Nicole Nelson, Gracie Knutzen, Abigail Transtrum, Sydney Cragun, Tia Hansen, Mallory Ringer and Alaina Pestana each converted a penalty kick and goalkeeper Evelyn Brimhall did just enough for the No. 4 Badgers (10-3-1), who also beat Monroe 2-0 on Thursday in the program's first-ever pool victory at the national tournament.
The shootout victory leads Snow to Monday's national semifinals, alongside fellow Scenic West Athletic Conference and Utah team Salt Lake Community College. The second-ranked Bruins held off Seminole State via 3-2 shootout after a 3-3 draw to secure a berth in the Final Four.