|Mary Hardin-Baylor quarterback De'Nerian Thomas, who previously played wide receiver for the Cru, can make things happen with his legs, as well as with his arm.
Photo by Joe Fusco, d3photography.com
By Adam Turer
Only the best of the best play in December.
Over the past decade, only a dozen programs have reached the national semifinals. That includes first-timers Brockport in 2017 and Johns Hopkins this year. The consistency of programs like Mount Union, Mary Hardin-Baylor, Wisconsin-Whitewater, Wesley, Linfield, and St. Thomas has created familiarity.
Although these teams rarely see one another in the regular season, they have come to know what to expect when meeting another of these D-III powers in the postseason. When the best programs consistently square off with one another in December, the line of separation is thin. That’s when coaches find themselves needing to get a bit more creative than they were throughout a dominant regular season.
“In the past decade there's been, in general, maybe 10 or 12 programs who are playing in the last two or three weeks of the season and I think those teams have certainly gotten to know each other intimately,” said St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso. “I can remember back to when we first arrived (on staff at St. Thomas) and it seemed like there were only two teams that were playing in the last week for a very long time.”
Mary Hardin-Baylor wants to wear you out with its defense and break big plays on special teams. The offense is content to pound the rock with Markeith Miller. Mount Union wants to spread the ball around to its talented playmakers on the outside and open up rushing lanes for Josh Petruccelli.
The chess match begins once the game starts and these two teams realize that they have not yet faced a team as big, strong, or fast at any point this season.
In 2015, Mount Union fell behind 14-0 to the Tommies, struggling to move the ball on offense. The Purple Raiders came out in the second half with a shotgun split-back set that changed the entire dynamic of the game, allowing them to reel off 21 straight points en route to a 49-35 win. It was a package rarely used by the offense all season.
“I think there are things that you work on all season long. Sometimes you don’t use them as much in a certain game or a certain week, but you want to identify things that throughout the course of a season we may need, and have those installed in preseason camp,” Mount Union coach Vince Kehres said in Monday's news conference. “It helps our defense, too, because we see different types of personnel grouping and different things. We certainly want to have some variety in what we can do offensively this year as well.”
When the Purple Raiders were pushed by Johns Hopkins in Saturday’s semifinal, they relied on the Wild Petro package, leaving quarterback D’Angelo Fulford on the sideline and snapping the ball directly to Petruccelli. The sophomore rushed 28 times for 110 yards. Eleven of his carries came in the fourth quarter when the Purple Raiders relied almost exclusively on him during both of their possessions.
“To have the ability to do those type of things was big, to go to 21 personnel (two tight ends, one running back) and get a few first downs in the fourth quarter,” said Kehres.
|Josh Petruccelli has yet to throw downfield when taking a direct snap over the past two weeks, throwing one ball away in the semifinals and tossing a forward shovel in the quarterfinals.
Photo by Robert B. Forbes, d3photography.com
It was not the first time Mount Union relied on snapping the ball to a non-quarterback in a big playoff game. Cecil Shorts III was recruited to Mount Union as a quarterback, but quickly converted to wide receiver. He excelled at that position and was selected in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL draft. But when starting quarterback Kurt Rocco was injured in a semifinal win over Wesley, Shorts was called upon to jumpstart the offense in the 2010 Stagg Bowl.
“It’s important in those big games to get the ball in your best player’s hands. There is no tomorrow, so that’s what it comes down to,” said Shorts. He caught seven passes, rushed seven times, and completed five of seven passes in the 31-21 loss. “That’s something that we practiced weekly, just to keep me up to date on different read options and Wildcat choices. I knew the offense already, so it wasn’t a big deal when we made that transition back there.”
This will be the third straight consecutive meeting between the Crusaders and the Purple Raiders, and second meeting in the Stagg Bowl. That evokes memories of the storied UW-Whitewater and Mount Union Stagg Bowl rivalry that dominated the division from 2005 through 2014 (sans a St. Thomas interlude in 2012).
“It makes it tough because you’re going against somebody you know so well, it reminds me of how tough it is to play a division game in the NFL. You see those teams twice a year and you know what they want to do to try and beat you,” said Shorts, a six-year NFL vet. “We knew what Whitewater wanted to do and they knew what we wanted to do. We knew what their strengths were and what our strengths were. It’s just a matter of who executes the best and wins the turnover battle and has the fewest self-inflicted errors.”
“It makes it tough because you’re going against somebody you know so well, it reminds me of how tough it is to play a division game in the NFL. You see those teams twice a year and you know what they want to do to try and beat you.”
— Cecil Shorts, former Mount Union wide receiver
Like the Purple Raiders, the Crusaders have their own change-of-pace in the backfield. DeNerian Thomas opened the season as the team’s third string quarterback. Luke Poorman, the Mount Union transfer, has been lost for the season with injury. Starter Jase Hammack has battled injury throughout the postseason. Thomas has emerged as a running counterpart to Miller, but also provides an added dimension as a passer. He has rushed for 13 touchdowns and passed for seven this season.
“The running back from Mount Union is obviously a little different from De'Nerian, although De'Nerian offers a challenge because he can run and throw and execute the option game well,” said UMHB coach Pete Fredenburg. “The running back from Mount Union is just an outstanding runner and with the big tight end back there blocking for him it gives everyone a headache trying to stop that attack. It’s similar in style to ours, they’re just a little bigger and more physical.”
Like Hammack, Fulford has battled injury this postseason. He missed the first round-win over Denison, then struggled mightily against Johns Hopkins. After turning the ball over four times and watching most of the fourth quarter from the sideline, the junior will need to bounce back if the Purple Raiders want to prevail on Friday.
“I think poise is really important at that position. You have to be able to move on from a bad play, you have to be able to move on from a poor performance,” said Kehres. “At the same time, you have to look at it and be mature enough to recognize the mistakes that were made and why they were made and then take a mature approach to fixing them and trying to regroup and play better in your next opportunity. I’m confident that D’Angelo will do that and that our offensive staff and players will do that.”
At this point of the season, players are willing to make sacrifices and try anything that may earn them the opportunity to hoist the Walnut and Bronze trophy. If that means switching positions or personnel groupings, or watching from the sideline for long chunks of time, the players only care about the result.
“I think at this stage, it’s all about winning. Guys don’t care, as long as we’re going to the next round. If we’ve got to make adjustments, let’s try this. The best thing you can do is get one of your best players the ball in those situations. The goal is to win, whatever it takes,” said Shorts. “You want to be ready for everything. As long as you can prepare for something, you’re pretty confident going into the game. Coaches are always alert and do a great job with the scouting report and communicating on the field during the game.”
Some adjustments this late in the season are made out of necessity, to cover up injuries. It’s not easy for a team to survive 15 weeks and keep all of its top players healthy. As we’ve seen in past Stagg Bowls in Salem, weather can play a factor and force teams to go away from their bread and butter on offense. The best coaching staffs find the right balance to make sure their players are prepared for any scenario, without giving them too much information to make their heads spin.
“At what point does knowledge and preparation matter more than your players’ minds being clear? Usually coaches will have a portion that they feel obligated to share with players so that they’re not surprised, but there’s another level where coaches may keep it in their back pocket,” said Caruso. “I think in general, the nature of defense is being so multiple that there’s almost nothing that will catch you totally off guard. Whereas on offense, if a defense is doing something completely different, that can change the way you play call or what personnel grouping you choose to put on the field.
“It seems like teams are adding new wrinkles at a higher rate than they ever were and trying more things that they think can take advantage of the offense or defense in certain situations. Some are things you stumble upon, realizing this is our best personnel grouping or package and let’s do this more. It’s kind of like investing, you keep going with what’s working for you.”
The more these Division III powers face one another deep in the playoffs, the more they learn from the experience. The Crusaders were suffocated by Mount Union in last year’s 12-0 Stagg Bowl defeat. This time around, they hope to turn the tables on the Purple Raiders. The quarterbacks might not be the stars on Friday night, and both programs are perfectly fine with doing whatever it takes to come out on top.
“So much of it is just based on the day-to-day and the feel and ebb and flow of the game. There are times where you want to be a little bit conservative and get into a more conservative package which allows you to put a little more emphasis on the physicality. Certainly Mount Union did that to us last year, which I thought enriched their abilities to move the football,” said Fredenburg. “I think us doing the same thing is giving us the same physical part of the game to where we can really attack them.”
We know what both teams do well, and what they want to do consistently. What we don’t yet know is which team still has a trick up its sleeve, ready to be deployed to make some Stagg Bowl magic on Friday night.