Ultimately, though, the Mustangs will surely derive an enormous sense of pride from a season in which a national championship slipped through their hands in rather painful fashion here Thursday night at historic Barron Stadium.
Leading 20-10 with a first-and-goal at the 5-yard line and less than 12 minutes to play, Coach Steve Ryan's Great Plains Athletic Conference champs were one fairly routine play away from the knockout punch they needed to subdue fifth-ranked Marian University of Indianapolis.
Next thing you knew, a program in just its sixth year was roaring back to win a national championship 30-27 in the first overtime game in NAIA football's 57-year history.
Twelve days after his 51-yard field goal with no time left lifted Marian to a 20-17 semifinal win over No. 2-ranked Missouri Valley of Marshall, Mo., senior kicker Michael Josifovski tied up this one at 27-all with a 35-yarder as time expired.
Then, cementing his offensive player of the game award, Josifovski, who has kicked a wind-aided 75-yard field goal in practice, had no trouble winning it with a 26-yarder in the overtime.
"We needed to stick it in the end zone,'' said Ryan of the pivotal fourth-quarter drive that wound up leading to his team's first loss after turning back all 13 of its previous opponents.
Instead, linebacker Ryan Hartnett intercepted a fourth-down pass in the end zone, returned it 12 yards and had a 15-yard personal foul penalty tacked on to start his team's big turnaround
"They just got life out of that,'' said Ryan. "We had a chance right there to put it away.''
Marian, ranked No. 1 before losing a 23-6 regular season finale to conference rival St. Xavier of Chicago, got a spectacular fourth quarter from senior quarterback, just 10-of-22 passing for a mere 54 yards in the first three quarters.
Wiese found his groove, though, hitting 15-of-17 passes after that for 177 yards to ignite a 17-point final period for the Knights.
First, he hit eight of nine on a 73-yard march that sophomore running back Tevin Lake capped off with a 4-yard scoring run, pulling Marian within 20-17 with 7:33 to play.
Then, just when it looked like he'd be sacked on a third-and-10 dropback from his own 44, the Knights' signal-caller dodged an onrushing defender, looked deep down the field and unleashed a pass that hit Nathan Jones in stride for a 61-yard touchdown.
Morningside, suddenly trailing 24-20, seemed almost out of bullets as Nixon took a fourth-and-15 snap from his 44-yard line with 1:28 to play. However, the senior from Wakefield, Neb., let it fly toward junior Kyle Schuck, surrounded by defenders near the Marian 20-yard line.
"I've always felt like it's been a high-percentage pass to throw the ball to Kyle,'' said Nixon, whose two touchdown passes in the contest finished off a season in which he shattered a school record with 49 scoring throws "He proved it again tonight, making a couple of amazing plays.''
Schuck, who came down with the ball at the Knights' 21, caught a 7-yard touchdown pass two plays later to seemingly save the day for his team, regaining a 27-24 advantage with 1:04 to play.
"A lot of people probably counted us out with that minute left, but we came right back down and tied it up,'' said Karras, whose father, Ted Sr., played seven years in the NFL while his uncle, the late Alex Karras, had a hall of fame career after winning the Outland Trophy at Iowa.
Wiese completed six of nine passes for 58 yards to get his team to the Morningside 18, easily within range for Josifovski.
Then, after Marian won the overtime toss, Morningside netted seven yards on three running plays and had a fourth-down pass deflected, leaving the Mustangs in quite the precarious position.
Sophomore running back Tevin Lake, NAIA football's third-leading rusher with 1,490 yards coming into the game, netted 16 yards on four straight carries before Karras, facing third-and-five at the 9-yard line, sent out Josifovski to win it.
"Morningside's definitely got a real sound defense all around,'' said Lake, who had 23 carries for 104 yards, finishing his season with 1,594. "At the end, I just tried to make the plays I needed to make.''
Morningside seemed to be in control after senior running back Fred Jones, who carried 22 times for a season-high 118 yards, scored his second touchdown to cap a 78-yard drive to open the second half. That made it 20-10, but kicker David Galloway missed the PAT and that missing point proved costly inasmuch as it would have prevented Josifovski from tying it at the end of regulation.
"Turnovers made a difference and the kicking game made a difference,'' said Ryan. "We made some plays near the end to give ourselves a chance to win. I thought we were going to do it. It just didn't happen.''
Morningside got off to a promising start, getting a quick three-and-out on defense and then marching 70 yards in seven plays to take a lead it wouldn't surrender until Nathan Jones' late 61-yard scoring play.
The Great Plains Athletic Conference champs forced another Marian punt and started their second possession with a 13-yard scramble by Nixon. However, on third-and-four from the Mustangs' 39, a heavy rush by Marian sent Nixon retreating far behind the line of scrimmage before an attempt at throwing a pass away was ruled a very costly fumble.
Marian's Billy Baker recovered at the Morningside 7-yard line and Lake promptly made the turnover count with a 7-yard scoring run that knotted the score with 6:19 left in the opening period.
The Knights helped make a go-ahead touchdown considerably easier for the Mustangs just two plays after the kickoff. After Nixon hit Joel McCabe with a short first-down pass, the Indiana team was flagged for a late hit and then an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, advancing the ball all the way to Marian's 28.
Jones had a big 13-yard gallop to the 7-yard line, but a third-and-goal carry from the 5 saw the ball jarred from Jones' grasp and Morningside was fortunate to get it back at the one. Then, despite a false start penalty, Nixon somehow scrambled for nearly 15 seconds before finding McCabe open in the back of the end zone to give the Mustangs a 14-7 lead.
It was 14-10 at the half after Josifovski hit his first of three field goals in the game, a 36-yarder, with 3:55 left in the second quarter.
Nixon finished up 22-of-39 for 228 yards and McCabe added to his 80 previous receptions on the year with another eight catches for 60 yards.