|Mount Union ended a
three-year drought in Salem, defeating St. Thomas 28-10 for the
Photo by Dan Poel, d3photography.com
By Ryan Tipps
SALEM -- This class of Mount Union seniors got themselves one kind of first and avoided another kind.
With the specter of being the only Purple Raiders football team in two decades to go four years without a national championship, the senior-laden squad battled its way to the Walnut and Bronze with a 28-10 win over St. Thomas.
Near the end of the fourth quarter, the mood of the stadium changed and the team knew – they knew they finally achieved that elusive goal. After St. Thomas’ final drive, All-American defensive back Nick Driskill stood on the 40-yard line, facing the Mount fans, and pointed to the sky.
Mount Union’s Stagg Bowl XL performance brought them all the way to the top.
“It’s very heartwarming” to be in this position, coach Larry Kehres said to a crowd of fans and players as the team accepted the championship trophy.
The national title was the 11th for the Purple Raiders in 16 trips to Salem.
It was also the first time in eight years that the Division III national championship didn’t feature Mount Union against UW-Whitewater. The Purple Raiders may not have had the chance to avenge their three straight losses against the Warhawks, but that in no way diminished the fulfillment that this team feels.
The spark was lit in the first drive, when Mount Union traveled 82 yards down the field, helped by a 41-yard reception by All-America wideout Junior Collins and capped by a 1-yard run by Jake Simon. But the Purple Raiders’ offensive momentum stalled for a large chunk of the game – though the scoreboard wasn't stagnant.
Late in the first quarter, defensive lineman-turned-linebacker Charles Dieuseul blocked a punt, picked up the loose ball and found the end zone, lifting Mount Union to a 14-0 lead from which it would never need to look back. It marked the third playoff game in a row in which a blocked punt led to a Mount Union touchdown.
“I was going to score regardless, if I had to drag 20 people in there, I was going to get into the end zone,” Dieuseul said.
He said that practicing punt blocking was part of the team’s routine, and Kehres noted that he’s never hesitated from using his best players on the field in that aspect of the game.
“We practice special teams daily, more minutes probably than a lot of other teams. And we get the dividend of that,” Kehres said. “We’re not afraid to take risks.”
Though Mount Union owned the first quarter, in many ways, St. Thomas commanded the second and third quarters, but often couldn’t convert their spurts of momentum into points. A pivotal point in the game was in the middle of the third, when a flubbed Mount Union punt was recovered by the Tommies. But the Purple Raiders held the Tommies and forced them into kicking a 38-yard field goal. That closed the gap on the scoreboard to four points, injecting new drama into Salem Stadium.
Mount Union responded in the way that Mount Union often does, with forceful conviction. Twice then, the team strung together drives of more than 80 yards and further solidified their lead and the security of a victory.
“We had some flashes of excellence that showed up at times and that pulled us through,” Kehres said. “Our defense was consistent throughout.” (continues below)
“When they got us on our heels,” Tommies coach Glenn Caruso said, “they were able to bring pressure and get home. There were times when we had a decent answer to it, and we moved the ball a little bit. But there were more times that we did not have a good enough answer to it.”
Kehres lauded St. Thomas’ defense and special teams, along with some of the twists they threw in.
“It was a tough game,” Kehres said. “We had our up moments and our down moments. The pressure defense from St. Thomas does that.”
Before Friday night, Mount averaged 62 points a game over the first four playoff tilts. Instead on Friday, they were held to less than half that. The Purple Raiders, which throughout the season averaged 557.71 yards per game, was held to 344 yards.
In their toughest moments, sophomore quarterback Kevin Burke said he and his teammates “kind of buckled down, looked at where they were, and kind of realized this is it.”
“That hits you hard, and you have to step up at that point,” said Burke, who with 222 passing yards was named the Stagg Bowl’s Most Outstanding Player. “We’re not a perfect team by any means, but we got the job done.”
Chris Denton, an All-America wide receiver for Mount, said he and his teammates went in with the intent of always setting its own pace. Opponents “like to change the game on us,” he said. Mount’s reply is not letting them do so.
Denton hauled in his team’s third-quarter touchdown, a 17-yard strike that might very well have swung the momentum back to Mount after several minutes of pressure from the Tommies. It was fourth down and five yards to go, and Mount could have settled for a field goal. Instead, the Purple Raiders showed what being a championship team is all about.
Experience has helped make this team so good. Only one starter on the offense isn’t a senior, and seven starting defenders are seniors. Collins had some of the game’s biggest receptions and notched his sixth-straight 100-yard game. Running back Jake Simon had 87 yards and two touchdowns. The front five opened some big holes. Strong safety Nick Driskill and cornerback Isaiah Scott made plays.
Because of what these players meant to him, the effort to bring home a title for the first time since 2008 had a renewed sense of urgency for Kehres.
He said while it would have been easy for this senior class to get down on itself or angry, this team showed great resolve amid its past three season-ending losses.
“It was a difficult three years, to see the seniors experience loss in the final game I felt for them,” Kehres said. But “this group inspired me. … They were such a dedicated group.”
What do the seniors have to say about it?
Dieuseul answered: “It’s the greatest feeling in the world. We worked all summer long … and all the work we did in offseason ball at 5 o’clock in the morning, 6 a.m. lifting, practices in the snow, it paid off tonight.”
Burke, the only non-senior among the offensive starters, will help carry the momentum and drive into next year. The quarterback who is as dangerous on his feet as he is with his arm offered his secret:
“We just played Mount Union football.”