A year after a controversial violation denied San Diego the Pioneer Football League Championship, the Toreros used some last-second heroics to achieve redemption and clinch the 2014 title. Keith Williams hit Brandon White for a 44 yard Hail Mary touchdown on the final play of the game Saturday to defeat Valparaiso to clinch the PFL Championship and the league’s automatic berth into the FCS Playoffs. It marks the third PFL Championship in the past four years for the Toreros and the first FCS Playoff berth in school history.
Last season was the first time the Pioneer Football League had an automatic bid to the FCS Playoffs. This is the single elimination tournament used to crown a national championship at the 1-AA level. It has produced powerhouses like Appalachian State and North Dakota State. Previously the PFL was eligible for at-large bids, but that rarely occurred as the PFL is a 1-AA Mid-Major conference considered a level below most top 1-AA conferences.
The Toreros were in position to capture their third straight PFL Championship and the automatic postseason berth last season, but they were forced to vacate their PFL wins and remove themselves from contention late in the season due to a rules violation. The PFL is a non-scholarship conference. So while players can receive normal financial aid to attend school, it cannot be related to athletic achievements. It was discovered at San Diego that some players may have had some of their non-athletic financial aid amounts determined with athletic achievements being factored in. While that’s not directly providing athletic-based aid, it was considered a violation.
Ironically, the same violation that caused the Toreros their championship last season appears to have delivered them redemption this year. Jacksonville was storming to a PFL Championship and would have won it over the Toreros on a head-to-head tiebreaker. However, they removed themselves from contention this week due to financial aid violations, likely the exact same scenario the Toreros suffered through last year. Had it not happened, the dramatic finish Saturday would have been for nothing more than pride and a share of the PFL Championship that wouldn’t have included the postseason bid.
With a newly opened path to the championship just one win away, the normally strong Toreros struggled and nearly blew their opportunity. Facing the Valparaiso Crusaders who came in 3-7 on the year, the Toreros gave up two big touchdowns in the fourth quarter including one with 28 seconds left that put the Crusaders ahead by one point. But then Williams and White hooked up on the final play of the game to save the season for the Toreros.
With the PFL schedule now complete, the Toreros can use their final game as a tune-up as they prepare for the FCS Playoffs. Lower level teams have not fared well in the past against more powerful scholarship teams, so how the Toreros will fare is unknown. The PFL representative was easily beaten in the first round last year. But the Toreros have been a dominant team in the PFL for a long time, and depending on their first round matchup they may have a shot.
The FCS Playoff field and first round games will be announced November 23rd on ESPNU. The Toreros will likely be a lower seed and have to travel for their first round game.