December 12, 2013

Purple Raider secondary battle-tested

More news about: Mount Union | North Central (Ill.)
Joshua Scott had one of Mount Union's four interceptions in the quarterfinal win vs. Wesley.
Photo by Dan Poel, d3photography.com

By Adam Turer
D3sports.com

Seeing the Purple Raiders in the semifinals is a familiar sight. Mount Union is appearing in the Division III football final four for the 19th straight season. What looks different with this Raiders group is a defense that has been tested since Week 1, and has been humbled at times.

Unlike the dominating Mount Union defenses of years past, this unit has wobbled on occasion, but come up with big plays when it needed it most. The challenges from the season opener to last week’s quarterfinal win over Wesley have Mount Union prepared for North Central’s balanced attack, which averages over 500 yards of offense per game.

The young Purple Raiders defense has been overshadowed by its young offense, which ranks second in the nation in yards per game despite entering the season with 10 new starters around quarterback Kevin Burke. The defense has done just enough to preserve a perfect season thus far.

Of course, a down year for Mount Union’s defense still ranks among the nation’s best. Even after Wesley exploded for 59 points over the final three quarters of last week’s thriller, the Purple Raiders have allowed just 17.4 points per game through 13 games. Still, the defense has bent about as far as it can without breaking against its most explosive opponents.

Mount Union allowed 27 points to Franklin the opener, then allowed 34 each to OAC challengers Heidelberg and John Carroll. Then there was Wesley and quarterback Joe Callahan, who passed for 633 yards and an NCAA Division III playoff record eight touchdowns. Last year’s Mount Union defense posted six shutouts and allowed just 8.9 points per game en route to a Stagg Bowl championship.

This unit, with seven new starters, has been consistently challenged but has done enough to remain perfect. The defense’s dominant first quarter set the tone in the victory over Wesley. The Purple Raiders picked off Callahan three times and allowed just one Wolverines first down (plus one more via penalty) in the opening quarter while opening up a 31-0 lead. Josh Scott, Isaiah Chambers, and Tre Jones each had an interception, and Jones returned his pick for a touchdown. Again faced with late-game adversity, the Purple Raiders prevailed.

"We had a great offseason and have had our poise tested from the very first game of the season forward,” said head coach and defensive coordinator Vince Kehres. “I am proud how our team has responded."

The defense has been aggressive, recovering 15 fumbles, intercepting 17 passes, and sacking the quarterback 38 times. The defense set the tone for the 2013 season -- Scott had an interception return for the team’s first touchdown of the season, and Ted Rosalva’s sack on Franklin’s final offensive possession preserved a 30-27 win over the Grizzlies in the season opener. Since then, the Purple Raiders have done enough to hold off Cartel Brooks (season-low 68 rushing yards) and Heidelberg, and Mark Myers (season-high two interceptions) and John Carroll in conference play.

"Our defense is young and has definitely been battle tested as we have seen a number of outstanding offensive teams and players this season,” said Kehres. “I am grateful that we have the opportunity to keep playing and continue to work."

The secondary features four new full-time starters, but each starter has experience. Chambers is a senior, Scott is a junior, and Jones and Alex Kocheff are sophomores. Each played a role in the dominant defense in 2012, but has taken on a bigger role this season. Kocheff, a safety, is the team’s leading tackler.

"Our entire defense has a number of young players and we have and continue to listen to our coaches to work and get better each and every week," said the sophomore safety.

Kocheff has big-game experience, and had the best performance of his freshman season on the biggest stage. He notched eight tackles and a sack in the Stagg Bowl victory over St. Thomas. The young defenders soaked up knowledge from last season’s defensive leaders like Charles Dieuseul (now a defensive assistant coach for the Purple Raiders) and Nick Driskill.

"I am fortunate that I got a chance to play as a freshman last year with an outstanding group on defense,” said Kocheff. “The upperclassmen leaders on this year's defense have done a great job setting an example for us as a unit."

This year’s leaders include defensive lineman Matt Fechko. The four-year starter and team captain earned first team All-North region honors. His leadership of the young defense is just as valuable as his on-field performance. He has enjoyed witnessing the progression of his underclassmen teammates firsthand.

"There were seven new starters on the defense at the beginning of the year and these young guys have worked really hard all season," said Fechko.

There is no resting on past performance. Last week was another wake-up call, albeit unnecessary, for the defense. They know that they need to put the work in each and every day in order to prepare for the nation’s top offenses. It doesn’t get any easier in December.

"We are working to grind out days with strong preparation in our conditioning, our film study and our play on the field," said Kocheff.

The Purple Raiders have allowed 90 points through three playoff games this season. Last year, Mount Union allowed just 89 points in five playoff wins, including allowing 35 to Mary Hardin-Baylor in the semifinals. In 2011, Mount Union allowed just 59 points in five playoff games and in 2010 allowed just 55 points in five games.

Only one of those three teams won a national championship. The 2013 Purple Raiders will need their defense to make its mark and create its legacy. Slowing down two of the nation’s best offenses in the next two weeks will be enough. Wins matter much more than total points allowed. This defense has shown all season that it has a knack for doing enough to preserve a Purple Raiders victory. Two more big challenges remain.

"Everyone playing on our defense knows that we can't take anything for granted,” said Fechko. “We have to continue to pay attention and dedicate ourselves to getting better each practice, each play and each week."

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