TEXARKANA, Ark. — Ten minutes into his first postseason game, Trey Vaval showed exactly what makes him an All-American returner.
Having already returned a punt 39 yards, the freshman from Blue Springs, Missouri, found a seam on his third return of the quarter and took it 59 yards to the 6-yard line.
The rest was rather smooth sailing for Missouri Western in a 35-14 victory over Henderson State in the Live United Bowl on Saturday.
“It was just a great day. My team had a great day,” Vaval said. “My team, all-around, we were doing our thing today.”
Vaval finished with 225 total return yards, breaking the bowl’s record in the first half and claiming MVP honors. He is the second straight Griffon specialist to claim the game’s top individual prize, joining 2018 kicker Tyler Basch.
“I’m just playing football. These awards don’t really mean nothing, I haven’t really done nothing yet,” Vaval said. “I’ve just gotta keep playing my game and keep excelling at what I do.”
Vaval’s explosive return in the first quarter set up the first of three rushing scores on the day as Markel Smith plunged in from 3 yards out for a 7-0 lead.
Smith rushed for 136 yards on 21 carries, pacing the Griffons (9-3) to 287 total yards on the ground behind an offensive line on five seniors playing their final game.
“That’s on the O-line, man. They couldn’t stop our run,” senior quarterback Wyatt Steigerwald said. “It’s awesome to go out putting up 35 points on a good defense. Hanging 35, that’s all on the O-line.”
The score remained 7-0 until Adam Morse’s pass to L’liott Curry from 9 yards out to put Henderson State (9-3) on the board.
Western would respond by scoring 21 unanswered, sparked by a 4-yard touchdown pass to senior tight end Blake Burau in the final minute of the first half.
Thanks to Henderson electing to receive in the opening half, Vaval had an opportunity to begin the second half with a 37-yard return. The Griffons drove down the field in nine plays, capping a 63-yard drive with a 2-yard score by senior Deron Thompson.
The next drive setup near midfield after a 41-yard return by Vaval, leading to a 9-yard score by junior Shamar Griffith. The lone non-senior to score, Griffith finished with 110 yards on 18 carries.
“We have a talented room. I’ve been saying that all year,” Smith said. “Just believing in ourselves and executing when our name’s called.”
The Reddies answered with a rushing touchdown late in the third, only for the Griffons to respond with a dagger of a drive. Over 15 plays, Western ran 8:37 off the clock, driving 87 yards for a touchdown on a trick play.
The lone special teams play Steigerwald lined up as the holder, the Griffons audibled out of the formation into a shotgun. Steigerwald then found senior tight end Luke Vang for a 16-yard score to put the game on ice.
“At half we saw we were having a lot of success, rushing for 6 yards a pop, let’s keep that thing going,” third-year head coach Matt Williamson said. “We put everything on that senior offensive line and said, ‘Let’s do this thing.’”
Steigerwald finished 15-for-27 for 176 yards, concluding his season with 2,382 yards and 28 touchdowns against six interceptions.
The Griffons finished with seven tackles for loss and one takeaway on an interception by senior linebacker Anthony Williams on the game’s second play. Western outgained Henderson 463-263, limiting the Reddies to 10 of 37 through the air and controlling the ball for more than 39 minutes.
The win caps Western’s 50th season with the program’s 300th all-time victory. The Griffons have won 11 straight games away from Spratt Stadium.
The Griffons’ 9-3 season is also the best since a 12-2 run to the national quarterfinals in 2012.