JOE POSNANSKI


FLORENCE, Ala. — One hit can change everything. That's football. That's life. One hit changed everything Saturday — one big, big, bad, bone-shaking, teeth-rattling, make-the-crowd-go-“oooh” — hit.

That hit is why Valdosta State beat Pittsburg State in the Division II national championship at Braly Stadium on Saturday.

Oh, there were other reasons, too, football reasons (turnovers and play calls and all that stuff), but in the end, it was one devastating hit that made all the difference. Pitt State came into Saturday's game — an actual national championship game — as the No. 1 team in America. The Gorillas had set every offensive record known to man. Fifty-seven points per game. One-hundred-eight touchdowns. Yards galore.

Barely 7 minutes into Saturday's game, Pitt State quarterback Neal Philpot had what appeared to be an ordinary run.

“That run gives Pitt State the all-time college football record for most rushing yards in a season,” the guy on the loudspeaker said. The old record had belonged to Oklahoma in 1971, one of the great teams in college football history.

Oh yeah, this was supposed to be easy. A coronation. Everybody thought so. Oh, Valdosta State was a nice team, a scrappy team — a team the football experts like to call “opportunistic.” Still, Pitt State was a rolling train. All week, Valdosta State coach Chris Hatcher kept telling his team, “Don't let them outphysical us.”

“Outphysical” is a good coach's word.

Fifty-six seconds into the game, Gorillas linebacker Jimmie Taylor intercepted a pass and ran for a touchdown. The next possession, Pitt State's offense rolled right down the field and scored again. That made it 14-0.

A couple of minutes later, Pitt State receiver Jermaine Carpenter was a fingertip away from catching a touchdown pass that would have made it 21-0. Pitt State was outphysicaling. This game looked like an instant Pitt State blowout — just add water.

And then, the hit happened.

Here's how it went: Pitt State got the ball again. And the Gorillas got greedy. They might have just overpowered Valdosta State, run after run, body blow after body blow. Instead, they wanted to put this game away once and for all. Philpot rolled left — he saw an opening deep. He threw deep.

Carpenter ran the route — he did not see the opening. He stopped.

The ball was intercepted by Terrence Bell. He started to run back. The Pitt State players chased after him, led by running back Germaine Race, who closed in fast. Race ran hard, and then, suddenly, BLAMMO, he was on his back. They talk about hits you can hear all over the stadium. This hit shook the stars over Alabama.

Valdosta State backup tackle Calvin English had planted Race in the turf.

And after that, everything changed.

Part of it was who got hit. Race, a sophomore who probably had the greatest season for any running back in America this year on any level (2,174 yards, 9.1 yards per carry, 27 touchdowns), had been knocked unconscious. When he woke up and made his way back to the sideline, he had a wobble in his walk. He did not play the rest of the half. He was never a factor in the game.

“I didn't even know it was the running back until later,” English would say.

But the fact that it was Race was just a small part of what happened. That hit — that one startling, violent and shocking hit — rearranged the nature of the game. Before the hit, Pitt State was dominant, unstoppable, the greatest offense going. After the hit, Valdosta State players jumped on each other and screamed and cheered.

“They were pretty excited, yeah,” Pitt State coach Chuck Broyles said.

Yes, the hit was like that scene in “Rocky IV,” when Rocky landed a punch that made the big Soviet fighter Drago bleed. “See, he's just a man!” yelled Rocky's manager (whoever the manager was by “Rocky IV”).

After the hit, Valdosta State's players knew that Pitt State was not invincible.

“I looked at their stands,” English said. “We were all pumped up. And they looked like they had lost their best friend. That just hushed them up.”

Valdosta State scored there and shortly afterward scored again and by halftime, the score was tied. It was anyone's game. In the second half, Pittsburg State made more mistakes. There was a fumble and a bad snap on a punt. Big plays. Valdosta State, led by quarterback Fabian Walker, moved the ball easily and scored at will.

The Gorillas showed heart. Backup quarterback Andy Majors led them back into the game, the defense got a stop, and Pitt State actually had a chance to win in the final 2 minutes. But they had not been in that position all year, and they took the field without their two best players — Philpot and Race — and all hope ended when Majors threw an interception.

But the hit was the play. The hit is why the Gorillas came home Saturday night without the national title they believed all season would be theirs.

“What happened?” Germaine Race was asked.

“I don't remember,” Race said.

To reach Joe Posnanski, call (816) 234-4361 or send e-mail to jposnanski@kcstar.com.