December 15, 2011

Looking to get back on top

More news about: Mount Union | UW-Whitewater
Jasper Collins announced his return to form last week with three touchdowns and a two-point conversion catch against Wesley.
Photo by Dan Poel for d3photography.com

By Andrew Lovell
D3sports.com

Jasper Collins has heard the comments over the years. When you play for Mount Union or UW-Whitewater, you can't help it.

Collins, a dynamic junior wide receiver for the Purple Raiders will line up for his third Stagg Bowl in as many seasons Friday night. Like the past two years, the Warhawks will be the opponent. But the Mount Union-Whitewater Stagg Bowl streak predates Collins -- the two teams have played every year in the championship game since 2005.

People across the D-III football spectrum -- from coaches and fans to writers and SIDs -- have wondered if that's fair, boring or, most commonly, simply whether or not it's "good" for Division III.

Collins' response to those comments? Easy. Mount Union and UW-Whitewater will meet for the seventh straight year in the Stagg Bowl because the two teams have earned it -- all seven times.

"In Division III, they have a playoff system, so I think that's the right way to do it," Collins said. "You put the teams in and you let them battle it out. Obviously us and them have been there the last seven years ... it's a test of the teams. If you're the best, you have to prove it."

There's no debating whether Mount Union and Whitewater are the two best teams in the country. They are. And they have been for the better part of the last decade. Few could or would argue that.

What is up for debate, however, is whether Whitewater has bypassed Mount Union as the preeminent Division III football program. A closer examination is certainly warranted.

If Whitewater defeats Mount Union Friday night, it will become just the third team ever to win at least three consecutive Stagg Bowls, joining Augustana (four straight from 1983-86) and Mount Union (twice -- 1996-98 and 2000-02).

Whitewater would also become just the second school to win as many as four Stagg Bowls within a five-year period, again joining Mount Union, which won six over a seven-year stretch from 1996-2002.

Whitewater enters Friday night on a 44-game winning streak that spans three full seasons. Of course, Mount Union boasts a remarkable streak of its own, as the Purple Raiders haven't lost to a team other than Whitewater since a 2005 loss to Ohio Northern.

Mount Union coach Larry Kehres, who is about to close out his 26th season at the helm of the Purple Raiders, has helped build one of the most consistently dominant collegiate programs in any sport in any NCAA division. But even as he gears up for his 15th Stagg Bowl appearance since 1993, Kehres insists the excitement has yet to wear off.

"It doesn't get old at all. I enjoy this," Kehres said. "... I think if you're a fan of one of these two teams, you appreciate that your team is back, regardless of which side you're cheering for."

What he didn't say -- and really, didn't have to say -- is that he enjoys the experience more when Mount Union comes out the victor. In the last two seasons, that hasn't been the case.

"Whitewater's the team that Mount Union fans talk about," Kehres said. "The Mount Union fans, the best team they've seen is Whitewater. So Whitewater's moved into the position of being the team that is the -- what do I want to say? -- standard bearer. What's the best team like? Well, it's like Whitewater's team."

So if Whitewater's the "standard bearer," what does that make Mount Union? The term "trail blazer" seems appropriate. But if the Purple Raiders hope to take back the throne as Division III's top team, they will have to do something they've been unable to the past two seasons -- slow down Levell Coppage.

Coppage rushed for 111 yards and three touchdowns in Whitewater's 38-28 win in 2009, and topped it with a Stagg Bowl-record 299 yards and three touchdowns in last season's 31-21 win.

Coppage needs 371 yards to become the all-time leading rusher among all NCAA divisions. That's not likely to happen, but, after watching Coppage gash them for nearly 300 yards last season, the Purple Raiders aren't putting anything past him.

Kehres said Whitewater quarterback Matt Blanchard, the brother of former Mount Union offensive lineman Derek Blanchard, is just as dangerous, and can pick the Purple Raiders' defense apart, particularly with play action.

"He's just really, really good," Kehres said. "He's so efficient. ... He really plays within the offense, protects the football, keeps it away from the defense. He's a really good quarterback."

Blanchard and Mount Union counterpart Matt Piloto will both start this year's Stagg Bowl with full seasons under their belts, a stark contrast to last season in which Piloto made his first career start for an injured Neal Seaman and Lee Brekke started for an injured Blanchard.

Collins, who leads Mount Union with 58 receptions for 776 yards and 13 touchdowns despite missing four games due to an injury, said Mount Union is pleased to return to the Stagg Bowl, but won't be satisfied with another second-place finish.

"It's always going to be in your head," Collins said. "As freshmen and sophomores, we lost the national championship. ... A lot of players that have been here have won national championships, so I'm one that hasn't had one yet. It's definitely motivation for all of us. We want to get a ring, that's the ultimate goal."

Collins, who torched Wesley's secondary for 139 yards and three touchdowns on nine catches last weekend, will be a key factor for the Mount Union offense. Collins (6-foot, 185 pounds) is in the same play-making mold as former Purple Raiders and current NFL wide receivers Cecil Shorts (6-2, 210) and Pierre Garcon (6-1, 205).

But unlike Shorts and Garcon, who each won Stagg Bowls, Collins is still searching for his first title.

"We're not content with just getting there," Collins said. "We want to win, obviously. The last two years we haven't been able to do that. We're happy to get back, but we're not satisfied yet. It's only the beginning."

It's impossible to forecast a winner in this year's tilt, but the smart money says the game will at least be close. The previous six meetings have been decided by an average of 10.1 points per game, with only Mount Union's 35-16 win in 2006 coming by more than 10 points.

The two teams would rather not debate which one is premier program in Division III. Both would rather win Friday night, and let the rest of us argue about it.

"I think both teams have shown, once again," said Whitewater coach Lance Leipold, "that they've been battle-tested and gone through the regular season and the playoffs to get to this point."

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