Dec. 12, 2009

Sidebar: Always A Turning Point

By Marty Gitlin
Special to NCAA.com

ALLIANCE, Ohio -
Lose their quarterback? No sweat. Their defense plays the role of brick wall.

Can't score? No sweat. Their wide receiver comes to the rescue in the Wildcat and tallies two touchdowns.

Welcome to Mount Union football, where adversity is more like a speed bump than a roadblock.

The Purple Raiders emerged Saturday with a 24-7 victory over upset-minded Wesley to advance yet again to the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl and earn a shot at their 11th NCAA Division III national championship. For the fifth consecutive year, Mount Union will play the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, which bumped off Linfield to reach the title game.

The prolific Raiders passing attack took a hit late in the first quarter when starting quarterback Kurt Rocco took a hit. He was knocked out on a vicious tackle by Wolverines safety Aaron Benson, who also forced a fumble on the play and recovered it at the Raider 14.

That's when the Mount Union defense rose to the occasion. Wesley managed to drive to the 2, but was stymied when linebacker Sam Kershaw intercepted an ill-advised jump-pass in the end zone by quarterback Shane McSweeny.

"We just shot it into the wrong hoop," quipped Wolverines coach Mike Drass. "If we had scored there, it would have changed the complexion of the game at halftime."

True freshman Neal Seaman took over as Raiders quarterback, but the offense proved stagnant. And when Wesley's McSweeny tossed a 1-yard touchdown pass to Sean McAndrew four minutes into the third quarter, Wesley trailed just 10-7.

Mount Union coach Larry Kehres made a bold move, inserting wideout Cecil Shorts at quarterback to play the Wildcat. Shorts turned a nail-biter into a comfortable win by running for touchdowns on successive possessions early in the fourth quarter.

Shorts set up the first score on a 23-yard sprint around left end to the Wesley 3, then took it in from there to stretch the lead to 17-7. His defensive teammates then joined the fun as defensive end James Herbert sacked and stripped McSweeny in the shadow of the Wesley goal line.

Fellow lineman Matt Williamson recovered the ball on the 8. Three plays later, Shorts again bolted in for a 4-yard touchdown to make it 24-7.

Yeah, that was a smart move by Kehres. Shorts finished with 110 yards on 18 carries despite playing quarterback for a quarter-and-a-half.

"Cecil was a quarterback when he came to Mount Union," Kehres explained. "We haven't practiced him a lot there, which was a probably a mistakes by us, but he's a veteran and he's fast. It was a tight game and we had to get a veteran at the controls."

A typical Mount Union rout appeared likely five minutes into the game when Rocco drilled a 15-yard pass over the middle to open the scoring. The Raiders added a field goal on their next possession to increase their lead to 10-0. But when Benson clobbered Rocco, the game changed.

"It was just a normal play," Benson said. "I dropped back into coverage and I saw that (Rocco) started running. I came in full speed and made a hit. When I saw the ball out, I was like `Grab it!'"

The Wolves couldn't grab the momentum after Benson grabbed the ball, at least not until the third quarter. But they did keep in close until Shorts moved to quarterback. Drass understood that it was that maneuver that sent his team home for the season.

"We were at 10-7 in the fourth quarter, so we can play with them," Drass said. "And we had practiced against Shorts and the Wildcat all week, but he got around the weak side and caught us napping and got us. It was gut-check time and he put the team on his back and got them back to the Stagg Bowl.

"You're looking at a guy (Shorts) who's the best Division III player in the country. You can't look at it any other way."

You're also looking at the guy who saved the season for a team they call The Machine.