Dec. 5, 2009

By Marty Gitlin
Special to NCAA.com

ALLIANCE, Ohio -
Frightening thought: By what margin would Mount Union have won its NCAA Division III football quarterfinal if it hadn’t committed five turnovers?

Despite that season-high total, the Purple Raiders advanced with a 55-3 dismantling of Albright College on Saturday. They will continue their defense of the national title by hosting fellow unbeaten Wesley, a 12-0 winner against Johns Hopkins, at noon next Saturday.

Not that the Albright Lions (11-2) were mistake-free. They also racked up two interceptions and three fumbles. The difference was that Mount Union took advantage of those.

And then some.

The tone was set before some of the 2,058 fans had even settled into their seats. On the second play from scrimmage, a short pass from Albright quarterback Tanner Kelly bounced off the hands of tailback Josan Holmes to Raiders safety Drew McClain, who sprinted 37 yards for a touchdown.

The Lions then failed to take advantage of interceptions on successive Mount Union possessions, greatly due to the stunning efforts of backup defensive lineman Lambert Budzinski, who registered three sacks on the next six Albright offensive plays. And with 1 minute, 35 seconds remaining in the first quarter, Raiders quarterback Kurt Rocco made up for his two interceptions with his first rushing touchdown of the year, a 7-yarder that made it 14-0.

“The two interceptions were a little unnerving, but Kurt just had to get his feet underneath him,” said Mount Union coach Larry Kehres, whose team has scored 50 points or more in seven consecutive games. “It’s a comforting feeling that we give up points grudgingly when our mistakes put the other team in good field position.”

The three points given up “grudgingly” were tallied by Albright midway through the third quarter. Its drive stalled, but John Whelan booted a 26-yard field goal to prevent the shutout. Rocco answered by using the short pass to march the Raiders on a drive capped by a 1-yard scoring plunge by Terrance Morring, stretching the lead to 21-3.

The Lions’ Scott Pillar followed with one of his two fumbled kickoff returns, then Morring added one of his season-high three touchdown runs. All that remained in doubt was the final score.

“We had opportunities to score points – we could have put 30 points on the board today with the short fields we had,” complained Albright coach John Marzka. “But we weren’t able to take advantage of them. The big part of that was a lack of execution. We didn’t make the plays we normally make. But Mount Union tends to do that to people.”

Mount Union also tends to prevent opponents from even dreaming of a comeback. Morring scored on a 45-yard catch-and-run, then added a 1-yard scoring plunge after another Pillar fumbled punt to make it 42-3.

Just minutes later, Rocco fired a perfect strike deep downfield to wide receiver Vince Petruziello for a 68-yard touchdown. That was merely the icing on the cake.

“We talked a lot at halftime about adjustments we could make,” said Petruziello, who finished with four catches for a season-high 126 yards. “It was a nice stretch play. I was pretending to block their safety and I think the cornerback took his eyes off me and I was able to get up field.”

But despite the success of Petruziello and Cecil Shorts (eight catches) through the air, it was the ability of Mount Union to dominate the ground game that proved to be the major difference statistically. Raiders back Morring (21 carries, 86 yards) led an attack that compiled 223 rushing yards compared to just 43 for the Lions.

“You always want to approach every game like it’s going to be your last,” Morring said. “As the only senior running back, I set high expectations.”

And the Purple Raiders – a team known affectionately by their fans and respectfully by their opponents as The Machine – lived up to those expectations.

Again.