For anyone who thinks an NCAA Playoff System won’t work for Division I, needs to take a very close look at Division III.
Sure, systems have imperfections. Brackets can be very interesting and matchups can be odd.
But the NCAA Division III Football National Championship between the No. 1-ranked University of Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders and the No. 2-ranked University of Mount Union Purple Raiders at Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl XLV in Salem, Va. is perfect.
The Crusaders’ Stagg Bowl pregame show airs on KLTD-FM (K-Rock 101.7, K1017FM.com, Townsquare Media’s RadioPup Application) at 5:30 p.m. UMHB Sports Information Director Jon Wallin and longtime UMHB offensive coordinator George Haffner will have the radio call of the National Championship game.
Kickoff is at 6 p.m. from Salem Stadium. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU (Spectrum Ch. 370, Direct TV Ch. 208, Dish TV Ch. 141).
The Crusaders return to Salem again in 2017 the number one-ranked team in the national D3Football.com and American Football Coaches Association Top 25 Polls. They are the defending National Champions and own the longest winning streak of any team in the NCAA’s four divisions at 29 games.
“We’re very excited about the opportunity to come back into Salem, Virginia and have an opportunity to play a wonderful football team and a great program with Mount Union. I have tremendous admiration for them and their coaches, and obviously we’re excited to be coming back,” UMHB head coach Pete Fredenburg said.
The playoff path has been a defensively dominant one for UMHB. They defeated Chapman 50-6 (lost the shutout on a questionable touchdown on the final play), Linfield College 24-0, St. Thomas (Minn.) 24-10 and punched their ticket last Saturday at Crusader Stadium with a 24-0 shutout win over SUNY Brockport in front of loud Crusader Nation. The Crusaders defense forced two first-quarter turnovers and the offensive turned them into 14 points.
“We work extremely hard and I think that it’s probably an old coaching cliche, and I’m sorry to use one, but we work extremely hard to develop team chemistry,” Fredenburg said. “The bond that has to develop with players and the trust factor and the things that they rely on each other and really care about each other, and that sounds trite, but that’s exactly what this team possesses, is just a strong bond or chemistry that they play so extremely well together and they push each other. They expect us to not only perform well on Saturday, but we expect them to practice well, to study hard, to develop the skills and the techniques that they need to do to have a chance to be successful.”
The road for Mount Union back to the Stagg Bowl after UMHB ended their streak in December 2016 has been a dominant one for the most part. In the regular season, only John Carroll came within 29 points of the Purple Raiders. UMU escaped University Heights, Ohio with a 31-27 win, thwarting a late Blue Streaks’ rally.
Their playoff path includes a 21-0 win over Washington & Lee, 45-16 win over Case Western Reserve and 70-37 win over Frostburg State.
Last week, the Purple Raiders went on the road to play No. 3 Wisconsin-Oshkosh, the National Runner-up from 2016.
Oshkosh had a 35-10 lead in mid way into the third quarter when UMU made their move. Quarterback D’Angelo Fulford found Luke Herrington for a three-yard touchdown pass, scored on a 13-yard run, and made plays to set up a two-yard run from Jawanza Evans-Morris to make the score 35-30 going into the fourth quarter.
After Turner Geisthardt’s 36-yard field goal made the score 38-30, Josh Petruccelli’s one-yard touchdown brought the Purple Raiders to within two points. UMU went for two points, as Fulford dropped back to pass and fumbled. Derrick Jennings, Jr. picked up the loose ball and rumbled 98 yards for the two points, which put Oshkosh up 40-36.
Evans-Morris scored on a one-yard run and Alex Lothan’s extra-point gave UMU their first lead since the first quarter, 43-40.
The Titans drove down the field and Geisthardt’s 46-yard field goal attempt fell short at the horn to end UWO’s hopes of overtime and a return to Salem.
So is there history here between UMHB and Mount Union? There sure is.
The Crusaders lead the series 2-1, with all three games deciding who went to the Stagg Bowl.
In 2004, UMHB defeated UMU 38-35 in Alliance, Ohio to head to the Stagg Bowl for the first time. The Crusaders lost to Linfield in the National Finals, 28-21.
In 2012, UMHB had a 21-point lead evaporate and Mount Union won the ball game, 48-35 to qualify for the Stagg Bowl. The Purple Raiders went on to defense St. Thomas (Minn.) 28-10 to win the National Championship.
In 2016 and Mount Union driving down by two points, Ajay Fanene made an incredible interception late in the ball game. Faced with fourth down and four on Mount Union 32, Baylor Mullins took the snap in punt formation and flung a 10-yard sidearm pass to Trinton Ynclan for a first down to help the Crusaders end Mount Union’s 11-year run at the Stagg Bowl with a 14-12 win.
“I mean that was a tough game to lose,” Mount Union head coach Vince Kehres said. “We felt like we had opportunities to win the game. We thought it was our best defensive effort of the season, with a lot of new starters last year on the defensive side after replacing a lot of great players from the 2015 team. You learn a lot from losses, you learn more from losses than you do from wins, I think. And I think we’ve learned a great deal from that game and the other loss that we had in 16 against John Carroll. We approached the off season with the goal of trying to correct the issues they care about that were exposed in those two losses. We feel pretty confident that emphasis is helping us in 2017.”
The next week, UMHB won the National Championship with a 10-7 win over Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
So Friday night will be the first meeting between the schools in the National Finals. And it’s a meeting of the nation’s top scoring offense (Mount Union, scoring 53.3 points per game) against the nation’s top scoring defense (UMHB, allowed seven point per game).
Head coach Vince Kehres’ Purple Raiders are making their 20th Stagg Bowl appearance, have won 12 National Championships overall and are 98-16 in their postseason history.
Mount Union has scored 746 points in their 14 games this season. They run a pro-style offense, average 235.6 rushing yards and 256.1 passing yards per game, for an average of 491.7 yards per game, 10th in the nation.
Fulford (182-of-261, 69.7 completion percentage, 2,959 yards, 49 TDs, 3 INTs, 110 carries, 426 rushing yards, 8 TDs) gets the start at quarterback for the Purple Raiders.
“Well D’Angelo, first off, he’s a great young man,” Kehres said. “I think that his character is outstanding. Myself and the coaching staff have a lot of confidence in him. Both in him as a player and what he can do on the field, and in his character off the field. In terms of his strengths as a quarterback, he’s a very accurate passer. He has good arm strength. He’s still a fairly young player. The decision making and gaining experiences still a work in progress. But we like our quarterback to be able to make some displays of speed, extend some plays, make good decisions. If you’re not sure, pull the ball and you know run, try to get a couple of yards and he’s done a great job for us this year.”
Evans-Morris (146 carries, 1,044 rushing yards, 11 TDs, 6 catches, 32 receiving yards, TD) and Petruccelli (145 carries, 1,034 rushing yards, 6 TDs, 11-115 receiving yards) are the running backs. Justin Hill (51 catches, 1,129 yards, 22.1 yards per catch, 19 TDs), Braeden Friss (49 catches, 701 yards, 14.3 yards per catch, 11 TDs), Jared Ruth (45 catches, 816 yards, 18.1 yards per catch, 14 TDs) are the receivers in the offense.
“I think timing and accuracy in the passing game is really critical,” Kehres said. “To have a well balanced offense and we’re fortunate to have some very good receivers and to have some depth in that unit. And to be able spread the ball around to several guys, and we’re going to need that unit to really come through for us Friday night if we’re going to have success on offense.”
Cole Moxie is the tight end and the offensive line is comprised of Matt Fitchet, Brandon Klaus, Cole Parrish, Mike Irizarry and Sean Sherman.
“Well, obviously, it’s very difficult because they are also talented and they have so many different tools,” Fredenburg said. “But we just try to do the best we can and the critical thing is just to line up correctly and let our guys have a chance to train them to see the things that we think Mount Union will attack us with and further develop it into a reaction as to the thought process and you do that by just giving rep after rep after rep after rep. Obviously, the things that Mount Union presents is a very versatile and dynamic quarterback, great running back, their offense linemen always do a great job of blocking and so they’ve got skilled receivers. We understand the task in hand but we also know that we have some good football players on our side of the ball as well so I think it’s going to be a hell of a football game.”
UMHB allows seven points per game, which is tops nationally. They are second in the nation in rushing defense (47.8 yards per game), 222.9 total yards per game on defense, ranked third in the nation and is number one in the nation in red zone defense. They are second in the nation in tackles for loss (143) and 10th in the nation in team sacks (49).
The defense has allowed just 13 points in the first quarter, 26 points in the second quarter, 25 points in the third quarter and 34 points in the fourth quarter over 14 games.
The Crusaders run a 4-3 defense, bringing pressure on every snap. Fanene is ninth in the nation in sacks (16), Tevin Jones leads the team in tackles (123), Haston Adams leads the team in tackles for loss (20.5), and Kris Brown leads the Crusaders in interceptions with five.
Fanene, Adams, Jordan Millar and Brazos Fuller comprise the front four. Jones, Tommy Brown and Jalen Martin are the three starting linebackers. Reggie Wilson is the Cru Back and D’Andre Jackson is the starting free safety. Kris Brown and Raylon Hickey are the starting cornerbacks.
On defense, Mount Union runs a 4-2-5 defense. They have averaged 13.8 points per game in 2017, surrendering 252.6 total yards per game. They average 83.4 yards on rush defense and 169.2 yards on pass defense.
The front four are Michael Vidal (11 tackles for loss, 7 sacks), Adam Mihoci, Elijah Berry (15.5 tackles for loss, 9 sacks) and Kenny Wilder. The two starting linebackers are Kenny Wilder and Charlie Dear (86 tackles). The starting five in the secondary are Brian Groves, Trevor Cox, Austin White (6 INT), Gabe Brown and Louis Berry.
The Crusaders run multiple offenses and can employ them in any game situation. They average 38.1 points per game, 126 of which were produced off turnovers. UMHB runs for an average of 161.4 yards per game, passes for 218.4 yards per contest and averages 379.7 yards a tilt.
While they have had three players start at the quarterback position this year, Carl Robinson III (111-of-159, 1,387 passing yards, 10 TD, 6 INT, 76 carries, 189 yards, 4 TDs) has emerged as the starter. Markeith Miller (214-1,121 yards, 15 TDs) is the starting running back and Byron Proctor (72-337, 7 TDs) will see some time in relief. T.J. Josey (41-930, 22.7 yards per reception, 8 TDs), Bryce Wilkerson (65-697, 5 TDs), DeNerian Thomas (29-249, TD) and Jonel Reed (26-401, 5 TDs) are the productive wide receiver trio, with Jacari Reed starting at tight end. The talented offensive line for the Crusaders are DeJuan Ramirez, Tivyronne White, Colton Hall, Justin Brister and Corbin Campitelli.
Special teams for both sides are extremely talented and dangerous.
For Mount Union, Alex Louthan (16-21 FG, 93-94 PAT, 141 points) is the placekicker and Adam Snyder (43 punts, 37.2 average, 58 long) is the punter. Cox (19 returns, 209 yards, TD) and Ruth (16 returns, 163 yards, 2 TDs) handle punt returns. Richard Morris (10 returns, 267 yards), Darian Littlejohn (6 returns, 212 yards, TD) handle kickoff returns.
The Crusaders have a solid special teams unit as well. John Mowery (16-20 FG, 62-66 PAT, 110 points, 5 kickoff touchbacks in 60 kickoffs) and Mark Frankhouser (2-2 FG, 2-2 PAT, 8 points, 13 touchbacks in 40 kickoffs) handle placekicking duties. Wilkerson is the primary returner for the Crusaders with five returns for scores this season (45 punt returns, 611 yards, 3 TDs, 6 kick returns, 261 yards, 2 TDs), which Thomas (200 return yards) posing a home run threat. Zane Boles (58 punts, 38.6 average, long of 71) handles the punting duties.
“Certainly, Wisconsin-Oshkosh is a great football team, and Mary Hardin-Baylor is a great football team,” Kehres said. “I think the challenge for any team this time of year is to try to string together two outstanding performances against the two best teams that you are going to play all year most likely, and do it in six days. I think as big of a win as that was, as an emotional type of game as that was, the key for us is to put it behind us and immediately be able to move forward with our preparations for Mary Hardin-Baylor.”