Marty Gitlin, NCAA.com
ALLIANCE, Ohio — Matt Piloto didn’t ride into Mount Union Stadium on a white horse Saturday. But it certainly would have been appropriate.
The Purple Raiders’ sophomore quarterback played the role of hero in a 34-14 victory against visiting Bethel in a Division III national semifinal.
Piloto stepped in after starter Neal Seaman suffered a foot injury early in the opening quarter. And Piloto barely missed a beat, leading his team to its 14th national championship game berth in the past 18 seasons.
The University of Mount Union (14-0) and defending champion University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (14-0) will meet for the sixth consecutive year in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl next Saturday in Salem, Va.
Piloto entered under adverse circumstances. The Royals (12-2) had just forged ahead, 7-0, on a 1-yard run by junior quarterback Josh Aakre that was set up by a 45-yard interception return by junior cornerback Ethan Anderson.
It marked only the third time Mount Union had trailed this season and the first in the playoffs. Seaman hurt his leg making the tackle on Anderson, forcing Piloto into the game.
It took a couple of series for Piloto to find his targets, but when he did it was a barrage from his strong right arm. He hit senior tight end Kyle Miller for a 25-yard touchdown to knot it at 7-7, and then found explosive senior wide receiver Cecil Shorts III on an 80-yard bomb to give the Raiders a lead they never relinquished.
Piloto was just warming up. He fired a 68-yard pass to Shorts (4 catches, 165 yards) to set up a field goal by Tyler Almeida to make it 17-7 and added a 25-yard scoring pass to sophomore wide receiver Jasper Collins to stretch it to 24-7 at halftime. It was Collins’ first touchdown of the season despite entering the game with 53 catches.
Piloto, who found Collins on a 7-yard TD pass in the third quarter, said he wasn’t nervous entering the game.
“I didn’t have time to be nervous,” said Piloto, who finished 17 of 32 for 335 yards and four touchdowns. “I just had time to react to the situation. The [80-yard touchdown] definitely calmed me down a little bit more.”
It took a couple series for Piloto to get on track, but that didn’t surprise Kehres.
“The humorous side is that Matt usually starts with three or four incompletions in practice,” he said. “So I told him, ‘Let’s get those out of the way.’ He can throw the deep ball, so I was like, ‘OK, let’s throw the deep ball.’ ”
While Piloto was burying Bethel with the deep ball, his teammates on defense were making certain the Raiders remained ahead.
Mount Union held Bethel featured back Logan Flannery, who entered with nearly 2,000 rushing yards this season, to just 8 yards on his first 10 carries. The Royals didn’t register a first down until midway through the first quarter and finished the half with a mere 54 total yards.
“Their run defense is as good as we thought they were,” Flannery said. “They’re a fundamentally sound team. When you’re in the Final Four, you’re not going to run into any weak defenses.”
Bethel finally hit its stride offensively in the fourth quarter on a 75-yard drive that was capped by a 4-yard touchdown run by Flannery. And as the clock wound down, head coach Steve Johnson gathered his players around and uttered some heartfelt words.
“I told them that I love them,” Johnson said as his voice choked with emotion. “It’s a pretty cool run when you get to keep playing like we did. We’ve overachieved for about a month now.”
The Purple Raiders? They’ve achieved greatness for about two decades. And they continued to do so Saturday afternoon.
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