Photo by Todd Allred for D3football.com
Mike Zauhar steps in front of Randell Knapp and doesn't stop until he reaches the other end zone.
By Keith McMillan
SALEM — Mount Union can be beaten after
all. It just took college football's all-time winningest coach to
St. John's coach John Gagliardi's 414th victory may have been his most satisfying, and it had to be the most improbable in his Division III coaching career. The Purple Raiders had won the past three national championships and a college football-record 55 consecutive games. But the Johnnies scored on a 51-yard run and a 100-yard interception return in the fourth quarter to win the 31st Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, 24-6 in front of 5,073 fans at Salem Stadium.
"A lot of people outside the program had their doubts about us competing," said Gagliardi Trophy winner and Stagg Bowl Most Outstanding Player Blake Elliott. "Mount Union has been the king of the hill for a long time. They've been pushing off whoever tries to climb it, a lot of times throwing teams off."
"Today we proved Mount Union was not invincible," said linebacker Cam McCambridge, who had seven tackles, three pass breakups and a blocked extra point.
The No. 1-ranked Purple Raiders, now 7-1 in Stagg Bowls, scored first but trailed at the half for the first time since Sept. 22, 2001 against John Carroll. Jake Theis capped a 14-play, 73-yard with a 14-yard touchdown run on the final play of the second quarter. The Johnnies converted a fourth-and-1 on the 26 with 17seconds left, then eschewed a 31-yard field goal attempt into the brutal Salem wind with three seconds to go. Theis took a toss from quarterback Ryan Keating, went down the left sideline behind guard Justin Cass and bowled over Matt Caponi near the goal line. Brandon Keller's point after gave the Johnnies a 7-6 lead at the break.
Keller added a late-third quarter field goal, and the Purple Raiders followed with a three-and-out behind Zac Bruney, one of two quarterbacks who rotated series for Mount Union this season.
Keating connected with Elliott, who touched the ball on just three first-half offensive plays, for a key third-and-10 conversion on St. John's following drive. Elliott, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound senior wide receiver, then lined up as a tailback and ran for 5 yards to the Johnnies 49. Elliott took his next carry, spun off 6-5, 265-pound Purple Raider defensive tackle Antoine Dillard in the backfield, took off up the middle and was gone. Elliott, who was playing with a pulled hamstring, rambled 51 yards for a score that he capped by diving into the end zone.
"I don't really know what happened," said Elliott of the run. "I think Dillard, No. 91 came and hit me. "He's a big dude. I kind of closed my eyes and spun away. Then I'm 20 yards downfield and trying to run with one leg."
Elliott's run put St. John's up 17-6, but Mount Union had no trouble getting back in the red zone behind quarterback Jesse Burghardt, who started and later returned to the game after leaving with a foot injury.
Mike Miller returned a squib kick 35 yards to start the drive, and Burghardt completed passes of 15 yards to Nick Sirianni, 16 yards to John Healy and 4 yards to Brian Miller on fourth-and-3 from the 5. Burghardt was stuffed by Jeremy Goltz and McCambridge on first-and-goal, and Jeff Strauch was stopped by Cole Deibele and Paul Gans (team-high nine tackles) on second down.
On third-and-goal, the Purple Raiders sent receiver Randell
Knapp wide right, lined up against Johnnies corner Mike Zauhar.
Knapp, a 1,400-yard receiver who was held to one catch for 8 yards,
ran a quick out. Zauhar stepped in front of Burghardt's pass at the
goal line and raced a Stagg Bowl-record 100 yards for a score and
24-6 lead with 9:02 left.
"That was just a bad call on my part," said Mount Union coach Larry Kehres, 205-18-3 all-time. "I put Jesse in an impossible position."
Zauhar's touchdown put the Purple Raiders in an unfamiliar position, trailing by two touchdowns or more in the fourth quarter for the first time since 1989.
Bruney and Burghardt each got another shot with Mount Union's offense, but both drives ended with interceptions. Each member of the Johnnies starting secondary recorded a pick as Bruney and Burghardt threw two each.
St. John's outgained Mount Union 338-286. The Purple Raiders came in averaging 50.3 points per game and 541.7 yards.
"The play of their defense really was the key today," said Kehres. "They really had control of us most of the time. You could say a lot of things that happened was poor play on our part, but the more honest answer is it was excellent play on their part."
"The biggest problem we had on offense today was great play by the St. John's defense," Burghardt said.
Burghardt is a member of one of the most successful senior classes in college football history. Mount Union's seniors went 55-1, losing their final game, finishing their careers much like another Mount Union senior class. The seniors on the team which lost 24-17 to Rowan in the 1999 semifinals, the Purple Raiders' last loss, also had a chance to graduate with four championships and no losses.
"Nothing we did today diminishes what Mount Union has done," said Gagliardi. "They've put together an unbelievable streak that's hard to comprehend."
"Mount Union is a classic program," said Elliott. "To beat a team like that? All it takes is 52 guys to believe. The longer we stayed in a game like that, the better it was for us."
The Purple Raiders were gracious in defeat.
"We got outplayed today," said Kehres. "We lost to a team that played an exceptional game. It was a great end to a great season for St. John's."
Indeed it was. Four years ago the Johnnies took the Purple Raiders to the wire, losing the 2000 Stagg Bowl 10-7 on a last-second field goal. This season was already special for the Johnnies, as Gagliardi passed longtime Grambling State head coach Eddie Robinson on the all-time victories list. But Gagliardi was his usual one-liner spewing self when asked if he planned to ride off into the sunset after winning his fourth championship, his second in Division III.
"I don't even know where the hell the sunset is," Gagliardi joked.
Later in the postgame news conference, Gagliardi returned to the same subject.
"I'm not going to go into the sunset because I'll miss all these guys," he said, referring to his players. "What am I going to do? Sit on a park bench and play checkers with some guy who can't hear me?"
"He's peaking," said Elliott. "He's as sharp as he's ever been."
With a stream of well-wishers, autograph seekers and reporters approaching him behind Salem's locker room building after the game, Elliott stood in disbelief.
"Sitting there back in two-a-days in August, you couldn't have drew it up, you couldn't have talked about the way this has all gone down this year."