By Ryan Tipps
SALEM, Va. – A fourth-quarter interception that was returned 78 yards for a touchdown likely scarred UW-Whitewater's momentum more than any other play on Saturday.
“I think I was just in the right place at the right time,” Mount Union strong safety Drew McClain said of the pick, which helped usher in a 31-26 victory and a 10th championship for the Purple Raiders. “Lucky enough that the receiver tipped it up in the air, and [I] happened to be there. The ball kind of bounced our way. When that happens, you have to take advantage of the opportunity.”
The Warhawks had been slowly chipping away at a lead Mount Union
built in the opening minutes of Stagg Bowl XXXVI after quarterback
Greg Micheli twice connected with wideout Cecil Shorts for long
“It was a very hard-fought game, MUC coach Larry Kehres said. “We got a quick start, which we needed. Whitewater fought back. They're powerful and very physical. I think they wore us down a little bit.”
Micheli, the Gagliardi Trophy winner and Stagg Bowl most outstanding player, proved he was a man of vision – one that allowed him to both scramble for big gains and find his receivers deep. Those kinds of performances were lacking from Whitewater, which didn't have a gain of more than 20 yards all day.
“We didn't give up any big plays,” Kehres noted. “We had to play defense a lot. We were on the field almost the whole fourth quarter, and we got tired; you get tired when you have to make that many plays. We shortened the fourth quarter enough to hang onto the victory by not giving up any big plays.”
Aside from a calm breeze that started in the second half, the weather channeled a calm that belied the intensity of the field. Days of rain walking up to the Stagg Bowl subsided at game time, and a comfortable chill hovered in the air. Still, the overcast skies meant that this was technically a game under the lights even if it wasn't that way in spirit.
And for four quarters, the purple-laden stands surrounding Willis White Field did not fall silent.
But 60 minutes was all they got.
“I thought that, you know, if we had a little more time, it would've been a little more interesting, that's for sure,” said Jeff Donovan, the Warhawks' quarterback. “I thought it's not necessarily that we had a slow start. … They just came out of the gates like we preach all year. They did to us what we have prided ourselves on doing.”
UW-Whitewater coach Lance Leipold saw his team fall short at times during the day, but still was happy that the game didn't end early – or at least the intensity didn't end early.
He said he was “proud of our young football team today and the way they competed. With the quick scores and their backs to the wall throughout the game, they never quite got over the hump in some situations where we had some opportunities. This team competed for 60 minutes, and I'm awfully proud of that.”
Mount Union opened the game with three series that were built around massive forward momentum.
“That's one of things we talked about all week, getting a quick start,” Micheli noted.
Falling behind on the scoreboard was compounded by other troubles for Whitewater. Among the team's most significant difficulties was the kicking game, which bookended two missed field goals around halftime.
Yet Whitewater controlled much of the game. The Wisconsin school outgained the Purple Raiders on offense and posted the day's final two touchdowns, all the while keeping Mount Union's offense out of the end zone for the final 49 minutes. Jace Rindahl, a UW-Whitewater linebacker and D3football.com's defensive player of the year, was a key factor in that.
“I'm just down there telling [the defense] … that we're going to be playing all four quarters. Let's just keep fighting, keep fighting every chance you got,” said Rindahl, who had five tackles and a sack. “And you know, that fourth quarter comes around, and it's a ball game, let's make it happen. And that's exactly what happened. We were right in there in the fourth quarter.”
Nestled in the mountains of the Roanoke Valley, the Stagg Bowl pitted two teams that had mountains of their own to climb.
“We had a lot of questions coming into this season,” Micheli said. “We really answered, I think, all of them throughout the year. And to see these young guys grow, I'm really proud of everything they've done.”
Kehres praised his seniors, noting that it was because of them that Mount Union was able to return to Salem and again hoist the Walnut and Bronze.
“The way this worked out, even though we didn't have as many seniors, they led a bunch of younger guys to a championship, more than the coaching staff did,” he said. “Nate by having a contagious energy at practice, it's kind of like the measles, other guys can catch it and learn how to practice effectively. … And Greg through preparation. We've had lots of good quarterbacks, and I don't rank them, but I would say in terms of preparation, no one prepared harder than he did for games.”
Whitewater was in a similar situation, having barely a handful of seniors on this year's team. And it took some easing into difficult roles for the team to finally reach its stride.
“I thought we drove the ball every time we had it, you know, taking the clock up, moving the chains,” said Donovan, who passed for 257 yards. “Our defense settled in and made some key stops. They really got us back in the game and gave us a chance to win it.”
The newly crowned champions have been here before, but not necessarily as this unique group.
Winning the Stagg Bowl, “as a senior, this is the most
unbelievable feeling,” said Mount Union running back Nate
Kmic, who rushed for 88 yards Saturday. Kmic was named
D3football.com's offensive player of the year and, with 8,074 yards
in his career, has more than any other player in NCAA history.
“I would trade in all the individual awards and all the stuff
that's happened in my career for this moment right now. I'm honored
to be on this football team.”
After the clock hit 0:00 and the trophies were presented, Mount Union players waved and celebrated in front of their fans, who remained on their side of the stadium long after Whitewater's stands had thinned.
Some on the winning team were seniors, perhaps playing in the last football game of their lives. Their drive was rooted in that, in a desire to go out on top. Others, such as Shorts, may have had additional things on their minds. Shorts, a star of the 2008 championship game, sat in the conference room, his helmet off, proudly displayed the words “Happy B-Day Dad” perfectly painted in his eyeblack.