|Luke McFadden is one of Johns Hopkins' deep threats, with 17.3 yards per catch and nine touchdowns.
Johns Hopkins athletics photo
By Ryan Tipps
In any given year, Mount Union barely appears mortal. In the lifetime of current players, the Purple Raiders have lost just over a dozen games total, and only a handful before the Stagg Bowl. Their deep runs have become the stuff of Division III legend.
“There’s an aura around a place that’s made history like Mount Union has and their frequent appearances in the finals,” said Johns Hopkins senior defensive lineman Anthony Davidson. “But all of that, while impressive, doesn’t define anyone’s opportunity going into Saturday.”
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Like any week, players enter game day with the mindset that they can win -- that they will win. For someone such as Davidson and his Blue Jay teammates, it’s not a stretch into disbelief. Two seasons ago, in a chilly second-round game in Baltimore, Hopkins came closer than most to dismantling The Machine.
Hopkins led by as many as 14 points in that matchup before the Purple Raiders put together a 21-point streak to ultimately win by seven. It was heartbreaking and frustrating for Johns Hopkins.
But that fact is that this school, known more for its academic success than its gridiron success, played nearly pound for pound with the nation’s elite.
“We played well and hung with them,” said wide receiver Luke McFadden. The hope is, of course, to do that and more this coming Saturday in Alliance, Ohio.
The rosters for both teams have been almost completely overhauled since that 2016 meeting, making Davidson’s and McFadden’s status of having already lined up against Mount all that more unique. Still, the 2018 Blue Jays, who have made it deeper into the postseason than any team in the school’s history, have every reason to be energized.
“The way we’ve been playing, I have so much confidence in this team,” said McFadden, a senior and team captain this year. “But playing Mount tight a couple of years ago, that’s even more encouragement.”
Behind the strong arm and collected decision-making of Hopkins quarterback David Tammaro, the team leads the nation in total offense, averaging 564 yards per game. Its defense, too, has elevated itself by holding opponents to barely 300 yards a game, notable in a Centennial Conference that was particularly tough top to bottom this fall.
The impact of the Centennial’s growing strength this year knocked Hopkins over early in the season with a 37-35 conference-opening loss to Susquehanna. The game forced a re-examination of the team -- the accountability, the internal competition. Not since 2010 has a JHU team lost more than one regular season game -- the big question in the aftermath of Susquehanna was how would this team come to define itself?
“Everyone realized, from that point forward, every game was a must-win,” Davidson said. The mentality that came out of that room turned what could have been one of the worst seasons in recent years into the best in school history (with room yet to grow).
|Defensive lineman Anthony Davidson has two and a half tackles for loss and a forced fumble over his past two games.
Johns Hopkins athletics photo
“The first two games, we gave up a fair amount of points on defense, but Mickey [defensive coordinator Mickey Rehring] did a great job with some adjustments on how we’re approaching games. We made some personnel adjustments, and we were starting some really young guys,” said coach Jim Margraff, referencing the three freshman starters on defense.
That Susquehanna game didn’t bog down JHU. During 2018, Hopkins beat two playoff teams in the regular season and has matched up well against its first three postseason opponents to land in the national semifinals. This run is historic because, of JHU’s eight NCAA postseason visits, the Blue Jays have never made it this far. Their best prior to 2018 was to the quarterfinals in 2009.
As expected when the brackets were announced, any realistic Stagg Bowl chance for a team on the right-hand side of the bracket would mean getting through No. 1-ranked Mount Union.
And No. 1 is No. 1 for a reason. No team on Hopkins’ schedule is comparable to Mount. Purple Raiders opponents are forced into playing their absolute best game, being fundamentally sound in all positions, and even then, having a little luck doesn’t hurt.
“There are two things: There’s winning football and there’s good football, and sometimes when we’ve won, it hasn’t been great football. But that’s what you’re always searching for, and what better opportunity than playing the No. 1 team in the country,” said Margraff, whose team lost a 2012 game against Mount in addition to the 2016 one.
Mount has great players in skill positions, and their success on the field stems from the ability to exploit weaknesses, fatigue and mistakes better than anyone else.
“We’ve played against some great teams in the past -- against Mount Union twice, against Wesley several times, some fantastic teams and great games,” the coach said. “When I look back 20 years ago and if you would have told me that we’d one day be playing and winning against teams like Washington and Jefferson and Rowan, that seemed like such a long way off. So, it’s great that we’re competing at that level right now.”
But, of course, the need to step up one’s game goes both ways. It’s unlikely this season that Mount has played anyone as complete as this Johns Hopkins squad. The Centennial team that Mount faced last week, Muhlenberg, held its ground for much of the game, and the one team that really pushed Mount this season got blown out in Round 1 of the playoffs.
Hopkins players believe the team’s recent history with the Purple Raiders paves a trail of confidence going into Saturday, giving them the ability to perhaps turn a Mount into a molehill.
“It can certainly be said that that game against them here at our place in 2016 was a significant stepping stone for our program,” Davidson said. “For the longest time, we were always stuck in the first or second round of the playoffs, and we never seemed like we were exposed to the teams in the Top 5, because we’d always run into someone who’d beat us before we got to that point.
“But after we played that game, we took a look around the room and said, ‘There’s absolutely no reason that we can’t compete at this level.’ ”
This is a JHU team that has depth and a multitude of weapons on offense, the kind that should keep Mount defenders on their toes. McFadden, who missed four games because of a broken finger, has that motivating him to extend the season and make up for lost time. He has 675 yards this year, and fellow receiver Ryan Hubley has 886. On the ground, Stuart Walters has topped 1,000 yards, while Tyler Messinger follows with 628. To defend against Hopkins, it’s a pick-your-poison scenario: Stack the box, and the Jays will pick you apart downfield; play on your heels, and they’ll get you in the gut.
Despite the physical and mental toll a football season takes on a player, this is a Hopkins team with more than one more week still in them -- whether they get that depends on Saturday’s performance.
“We’re already in the mind-set that we are going out to win it,” McFadden said. “This isn’t just a we’re-happy-to-be-in-the-final-four situation.”
It’s been repeated over and over the past few days: No one in Maryland is ready for this season to come to an end.