Mt. Union, UW-Whitewater meet again
Teams to play for Stagg Bowl for seventh consecutive time
If you're a college football fan, then you know the implications of annual rivalry games like Alabama vs. Auburn and Michigan vs.Ohio State. But in Division III football, the Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater game is more than your ordinary rivalry game -- it has decided the NCAA champion for the last six years, and will do so again for an unprecedented seventh time on Friday in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl.
The teams have played in each of the last six Stagg Bowls with Mount Union winning three in 2005, 2006 and 2008 and Whitewater taking the title three times in 2007, 2009 and 2010. In those six contests, Mount Union leads the point differential by an unbelievably close margin of 171-170. "It is kind of a unique situation that hasn't happened before where teams keep coming back to go at it again," Mount Union head coach Larry Kehres said. "I think being a fan of one of these two teams, you appreciate that your team is back regardless of what side you're cheering for and you respect it."
"I think it is more interesting to the average fan because of how these games have been played," Wisconsin-Whitewater head coach Lance Leipold said. "There are certain match-ups in college football that you keep an eye on. This gets a few more people involved because of the names and coverage and national television exposure."
During his 26-year tenure with the Purple Raiders, Kehres has built Mount Union into the standard by which Division III football is measured. His teams have won an NCAA-record 10 of the last 16 national titles, and the program is playing in the Stagg Bowl for the 15th time in 2011.
"You are always impressed with their level of play and the level of consistency that Coach Kehres and his staff have been able to maintain," Leipold said. "It's a system where their kids play hard and they are well-coached. When you think of Mount Union, you think of the Stagg Bowl and championship football."
But over the last seven seasons, the Warhawks have been making their own mark on Division III football. UW-Whitewater is riding a 44-game winning streak into the Stagg Bowl -- the longest current winning streak in college football on any level, and the fifth-longest in NCAA history.
"When you hear (Mount Union), you know you're at the end of the season," senior running back Level Coppage said. "They're a team that is always going to be in the championship hunt. You want to be playing them, because that means you'll be in the spotlight. They've been amazing over the last 20 years, and as Whitewater, we're trying to take over."
Whitewater's championship game wins in 2007, 2009 and 2010 are Mount Union's only losses in the last five years.
"I do consider it a rivalry because I've been here for five years now, and we've only lost three games during that time and they have all been to Wisconsin-Whitewater," Mount Union senior wide receiver A.J. Claycomb said. "They're definitely a team that we want to beat and it is always going to be a great game.
"We both have good traditions now, and being in the national spotlight isn't something that very many teams get to be a part of every year. Both teams have great coaching, and being in the national spotlight adds to recruiting for both schools."
Coppage, the Most Outstanding Player of the last two Stagg Bowls, basks in the glow of the national spotlight. He has combined for 410 rushing yards and six touchdowns in the last two meetings.
"These two programs are very fortunate to basically be the face of Division III football," Coppage said. "Nothing is guaranteed in a long season like this, so you just have to take advantage of the opportunity."
For Kehres, making the almost annual trip to Salem Stadium in Salem, Va., never gets old.
"We get older as coaches," Kehres said. "but there are new players every year. All the young guys want to go do it again. I enjoy this."
Leipold has been at the helm of the Warhawks' program for only the last five seasons. In 2007, the first-year head coach led Whitewater to its' first NCAA title.
"There's always a new injection of energy and excitement and something special that has happened that makes us able to get to this point," Leipold said. "It hasn't gotten old, and it never will."
2005: Mount Union 35, UW-Whitewater 28
Future NFL wide receiver Pierre Garcon caught seven passes for 107 yards and two touchdowns, while freshman running back Nate Kmic rushed for 185 yards and three scores, including a 95-yard TD in the third quarter.
2006: Mount Union 35, UW-Whitewater 16
Mount Union quarterback Greg Micheli turned in a performance worth of Most Outstanding Player honors, leading his squad off the bench in Purple Raider's two quarterback system. Micheli set a new NCAA Division III Championship game record by completing 18-of-22 passing for an .818 completion percentage. He threw for 202 yards and three scores, including two TD passes to Garcon, and also ran for a touchdown.
2007: UW-Whitewater 31, Mount Union 21
In Lance Leipold's first season as head coach, UW-Whitewater captured its' first-ever NCAA title by snapping Mount Union's 37-game winning streak. The Warhawks' defense held the Purple Raiders scoreless in the first half, stopping star rusher Kmic twice on a first quarter goal line stand.
2008: Mount Union 31, UW-Whitewater 26
Drew McClain's 78-yard interception return in the fourth quarter was the only second half score the Purple Raiders would need as they fended off the Warhawks' attempted comeback. Micheli connected with Cecil Shorts III on a pair of first-quarter scores to give Mount Union an early 14-0 lead.
2009: UW-Whitewater 38, Mount Union 28
With the score tied 28-28 in the fourth quarter, defensive back Paul Wick recovered a Mount Union fumble which set up a Levell Coppage 31-yard scoring run that put UWW up 35-28. Coppage ran for 111 yards and three scores in the contest.
2010: UW-Whitewater 31, Mount Union 21
Levell Coppage ran for 299 yards and three touchdowns, including a 75-yard scoring run with 2:34 left in the game to seal the victory for the Warhawks. Coppage's rushing total was a Stagg Bowl and he earned Most Outstanding Player honors for the second straight year.