By Keith McMillan
BELTON, Texas -- Mary Hardin-Baylor earned its first trip to the Stagg Bowl since 2004, and Mount Union won't play for the national championship for the first time since that year, following the Cru's 14-12 victory Saturday evening in the Division III national semifinals.
- Semifinal scoreboard
- Oshkosh punches first ticket to Salem
- UMHB ends Mount Union's run
- 2016 playoff bracket
- Playoff headlines and features
The Purple Raiders mustered just 242 yards, but had a chance to tie the game following Dom Davis's 8-yard touchdown scramble with 4:24 left. Davis threw the ball into the ground instead of into double coverage on the two-point conversion attempt, and his defense got him the ball back with 2:32 left, two timeouts and the ball on their own 45. On third and eight, Ajay Fanene leapt to intercept a halfback screen pass and seal UMHB's trip to Salem. It will face off with UW-Oshkosh, a first-time Stagg Bowl participant, as each team aims for its first national championship.
"It was just an incredible game, atmosphere, opponent, performance, all of those things were just incredible," said Mary Hardin-Baylor coach Pete Fredenburg, who had guided the Cru to the semifinals five times previously since starting the program in 1998. "It was awesome to come out on the winning edge against a team that, obviously, everybody knows about Mount Union."
Prior to Fanene's interception, Mount Union needed about 25 yards to set up a game-winning field goal attempt. The Purple Raiders had used a screen to running back B.J. Mitchell for a solid gain earlier in the game.
|The Mary Hardin-Baylor defense led the way with big plays to get the Cru past Mount Union.
Photo by Joe Fusco, d3photography.com
"It's funny, because I was on the sideline next to Coach Fred," Fanene said. "I went in on a passing situation, third down, and Coach Fred said, 'Watch the screen,' and I was like, 'Alright.' I took my steps and I [saw] that [the tackle] wasn't really trying to block me, he was just trying to take me up the field. So I stopped, and he threw the ball and I just happened to be at the right spot to make the play."
Despite the dicey situation his defense was in to protect the late two-point lead, Fredenburg had a good feeling.
"I felt like the longer we played, the better our defense got," he said. "We've been very good about getting turnovers and creating issues, and I just kept thinking that something was going to happen. And it did."
It was fitting that the game ended on a defensive play, as neither team excelled offensively. The defenses were stout against the run and determined not to give up deep passes. UMHB came into the day averaging 52.2 points and 198.7 yards of offense, but gained just 283, including 114 on 44 rushes. But when it needed a big play, UMHB turned to senior quarterback Blake Jackson. He connected with running back Duane Thompson on a wheel route for a 25-yard gain, and twice scrambled for 11 yards on a third-quarter touchdown drive. The second run set up his 1-yard quarterback sneak with 1:53 left in the period, which put the Cru ahead 14-6.
"He can make something out of nothing, no question," Fredenburg said of Jackson, who split time at quarterback the past two seasons before taking over this year as the sole starter.
The Crusaders led 7-6 at the half despite averaging just 2.7 yards per carry against the Purple Raiders defense. The lone touchdown of the opening half came when Jackson threw a jump ball to T.J. Josey in the end zone. Josey leaped and could get just one hand on it, but Wykeyhe Walker pulled down the tipped ball for a 33-yard touchdown catch. Earlier on that drive, on a third and 12, running back Markeith Miller one-hand-snagged a high screen pass and rumbled for a 24-yard gain.
Yards were hard to come by in the first half for the Purple Raiders as well. Mount Union mustered two field goals despite passing for just 13 yards, but rushed 29 times for 108 yards (3.7 yards per carry). The Purple Raiders had 121 yards and one turnover in the opening half, and UMHB gained 151 yards, all but 46 of those through the air.
Mount Union, bidding to become the fourth team to win four consecutive road games in the playoffs and reach the Stagg Bowl, saw its run through the bracket stopped. It was the Purple Raiders' first road loss since a playoff defeat at Albion in 1994.
Mount Union and Mary Hardin-Baylor had met twice before, in semifinal games in Alliance, Ohio. Both are remembered as epic games in Division III lore, given that each time, a team rallied from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to win. In 2004, UMHB won when Walter Sharp caught a fourth-and-12 touchdown pass in the snow during a 38-35 win. In 2012, Mount Union's Jake Simon ran for the go-ahead touchdown with five seconds left.
On Saturday, B.J. Mitchell led the Purple Raiders with 31 carries for 137 yards, and drew praise of UMHB defensive players. Mount Union passed for just 63 yards, but that was partly a conscious decision because UMHB favored deep coverages.
The defending national champions lost nearly their entire offense, and made it back to the semifinals with a gritty defensive performance -- Coach Vince Kehres called it his defense's best of the season -- and a game outing from a freshman quarterback who earned the starting job midway through the season.
"I'm really proud of our team and our effort," Kehres said, "and I think we overachieved to some degree this season. We'll be back."