SALEM, Va. – Mount Union is back on top of Division III football, and failure was the inspiration.
Kevin Burke led two second-half touchdown drives and the Purple Raiders ended a three-year losing streak in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl with a 28-10 victory over St. Thomas of Minnesota on Friday night.
Those three straight losses, coach Larry Kehres said, gave him a sense of urgency to win again, and keep his seniors from being his first class in 20 years to leave without a title.
“It was a difficult three years to see the seniors experience loss in the final game,” Kehres said. “I felt for them. This group inspired me to do everything I could coaching to make sure we got every chance to win the championship this year.”
The victory gave Kehres his 11th national title in 16 appearances in the Stagg Bowl, all in the past 20 years. He’s staggering 332-24-3 in 27 seasons, and those seniors did a lot of the heavy lifting.
Linerbacker Charles Dieuseul blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown as the Purple Raiders (15-0) took an early 14-0 lead, and wide receiver Chris Denton rebounded form fumbling a punt away with a 17-yard TD catch on a fourth down play.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Dieuseul gushed after also having six tackles and a sack. “We worked all summer to get to this point right here. All the hard work – 6 a.m. lifting, practicing in the snow – and it paid off tonight.”
Burke, the game’s most outstanding player, threw the scoring pass to Denton on fourth down late in the third quarter to give the Purple Raiders a 21-10 lead, then directed a 14-play, 87-yard drive for the clinching score with 4:28 to play.
“I think it was these guys kind of buckling down,” Burke said. “You looked at where you are and kind of realized that this is it. This is our last second quarter, third quarter, fourth quarter. That hits you hard and you’ve got to step up at that point.”
The sophomore quarterback stepped up, too, completing three third-down passes to keep the final drive alive. Burke finished 21 for 28 passing for 222 yards with the touchdown, and avoided the turnovers that often alter title games.
The Tommies (14-1), making their first appearance in the championship game and playing in the Eastern time zone for the first time since 1949, managed only 35 yards of offense in the second half against Mount Union’s top-rated defense, and couldn’t stop the Purple Raiders’ top-ranked offense after Paul Graupner’s 38-yard field goal made it a 14-10 game.
“I do think for sure one of the pivotal points of the game was when we did get within those four points and then they came back and they answered and I think that’s the mark of a championship team,” fifth-year coach Glenn Caruso said.
The Tommies seemed poised to make it a game down to the wire until Burke and Co. took command.
“We’re crushed,” wide receiver Dan Ferrazzo said, “and like coach said, we’re going to own this pain and we’re going to get better from it.”
Mount Union’s offense, stymied for several series, came alive after Graupner’s field goal midway through the third quarter. The scoring play was set up by the game’s first turnover, a fumble by Denton recovered by Zach Novaczyk at the 27.
The Purple Raiders took over at their 19 and went 81 yards in 12 plays. Burke hit Julius Moore for 12 yards on a third-and-four and Jasper Collins for eight yards on a third-and-12 from the St. Thomas 25.
Kehres opted to go for it on fourth-and-four, and Burke hit Denton in the left corner for the TD.
A leaping, fingertip interception by Isaiah Scott at the Purple Raiders’ 13 ended the Tommies’ attempt to answer, and Burke completed three passes on third down to keep the ensuing nearly 9-minute drive alive.
The third one, on third-and-6 from the St. Thomas 43, went to Jasper Collins, who juked Sean Hamlin after the short catch, turning it into a 38-yard gain. Two plays later, Jake Simon’s second 1-yard TD run made it 28-10.
The Tommies struggled early, but used a trick play to get untracked, and on the scoreboard.
Facing fourth-and-10 from the Purple Raiders’ 10, they lined up for a 27-yard field goal. The snap came to Ferrazzo, the holder, who bolted for the right pilon, diving for the touchdown to make it 14-7 just 1:29 into the second quarter.
The Tommies should have tied it later in the quarter when Matt O’Connell hit Matt Misiewicz in the hands a few steps from the end zone, but the ball glanced off the big tight end’s hands and the drive stalled.
O’Connell finished 15 for 35 for 116 yards. He was sacked five times and under pressure all game.
The Purple Raiders looked intent on reclaiming their perch atop Division III football from the start. From its own 18, Mount Union needed just seven plays, the biggest a 41-yard pass from Burke to Collins, to go ahead 7-0. They actually scored twice, too, because the officials said they needed to review Burke’s 10-yard pass to Denton to the 1, but didn’t decide to do it until after Simon scored on a 1-yard run. After a lengthy review, Simon ran it in again on the do-over.
Mount Union made it 14-0 after an exchange of punts. The Purple Raiders held again, and when Tommies’ 6-foot-6 punter Garrett Maloney had to jump to catch a high snap, he was swarmed as he tried to punt.
“I was going to score regardless, even if I had to drag 20 people,” Dieuseul said.
It was Mount Union’s fourth punt block, and third return for a TD, in the past three games