Reporting Jeff Wald
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – When you win in college football, outsiders start paying attention and suddenly your schedule gets a little busier.
Everyone wants in on the action, a piece of the pie, to hear about your journey to play for a championship. The Division III football universe is centered on Salem, Va., this week as St. Thomas and Mount Union meet Friday night in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl for the national championship. It’s a match-up of two elite programs who have vastly different levels of experience when it comes to playing for all the marbles.
St. Thomas (14-0) has been to the NCAA Playoffs four straight seasons, but they’ve never gotten to the national championship game. Mount Union, meanwhile, makes a habit of getting there. The Raiders have played in 16 national championship games, including seven straight, and won 10 national titles. Mount Union has lost each of the last three title games it has played in.
The Tommies got to the national semifinals last year before losing to UW-Whitewater, the eventual national champion, 20-0. Coach Glenn Caruso said after last Saturday’s semifinal win he went to the national title game last year, and the fact that his team wasn’t there with him made him feel like a failure as a head coach.
I’m not sure how much the experience of having been in the national title game before matters this week. St. Thomas has four years of playoff experience and has shown a variety of ways to win big games this year. The latest includes a pair of defensive touchdowns in the playoffs, both from senior defensive lineman Ayo Idowu.
The only difference this week might come in the preparation for the game, which is at 6 p.m. Friday. St. Thomas left on a plane Tuesday afternoon for Virginia. The Tommies have afternoon practices Wednesday and Thursday, a media session Wednesday after practice, a service project at a local school Thursday and an awards banquet with Mount Union Thursday night.
As for the game, it features two squads which have equally dominant statistics.
Mount Union doesn’t feature a whole lot of trickery to its offense, mainly because they don’t need it. The Raiders have averaged a jaw-dropping 558 yards of total offense per game this season, including 263 on average in the run game. They’re outscoring opponents by an average margin of 54-8.
Mount Union got back to the NCAA title game by virtue of scoring 34 fourth quarter points to beat Mary Hardin-Baylor 48-35.
The Raiders are led by quarterback Kevin Burke, who has more than 3,500 yards passing and 37 touchdowns. T.J. Lattimore leads Mount Union in rushing with more than 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns. Blair Skilliter also has 531 yards and 13 touchdowns.
What’s always been impressive about Mount Union is its team defense. The Raiders allow just 180 yards of total offense on average and are very stingy in the run game with less than 48 yards. Mount Union also has 38.5 sacks on the season and 20 interceptions.
St. Thomas averages nearly 465 yards of total offense per game and has outscored opponents by a 36-14 average. The Tommies are running for about 242 yards per game, and O’Connell leads the passing game with more than 2,600 yards and 22 touchdowns. Logan Marks and Dan Ferrazzo have a combined 11 receiving touchdowns.
On defense, St. Thomas has 44 sacks on the season, 94 tackles for a loss and 19 interceptions.
The match-up on paper looks to be a toss-up. They’re two great offenses that want to run the ball, stop the run and create turnovers. Generally, a game like this comes down to not turning the ball over and winning the battle at the line of scrimmage.
While Mount Union has history on its side, St. Thomas might have destiny on its side. The Tommies graduated virtually all of their skill positions from last year’s squad, then went through a rash of injuries early in the season.
They’ve won a majority of their games this year with an offense that features mainly freshmen and sophomores. The list of key freshman contributors includes WR Jack Gilleland, RB Brenton Braddock, kicker Paul Graupner and WR Matt Misiewicz. The sophomores are QB Matt O’Connell, WR Pete Fitzsimmons, RB Ryan Toney, CB Sean Hamlin and WR Dan Ferrazzo.
Without this group, the Tommies simply wouldn’t be where they are today.
Kickoff for the Division III national championship is set for 6 p.m. Friday in Salem, Va. The game will be broadcast on TV on ESPNU. If you would like to watch a replay of the Tommies’ win over UW-Oshkosh, it will be on at 1 p.m. Friday on ESPNU.
There’s also an important programming note for the radio: The Timberwolves will be on WCCO Radio 830 AM that night, so JACK FM 104.1 will pick up the football broadcast with Dave Lee on the play-by-play and Eric Nelson on color commentary as they have been since opening day.