Dec. 4, 2009

By Marty Gitlin
Special To

The classic comic features a young boy forlornly clutching a football as he enters his house.

“How’d you do, son?” asks his father.

“We were doing great – then the big kids got out of school,” he replies.

The young boy in this analogy is represented by the Albright College football team. The “big kids” are Saturday’s formidable foe, Mount Union. The Lions (11-1) travel to meet the nearly invincible and defending champion Purple Raiders at noon in an NCAA Division III national quarterfinal.

Albright coach John Marzka expressed his players’ task succinctly

“We don’t have to be better than Mount Union,” he said. “We just have to be better for three hours on Saturday.”

Nobody has been better over the years than Mount Union, which has won 10 of the last 16 national championships. The team known as “The Machine” has rolled merrily along in 2009 with a 12-0 record and has outscored its opponents, 572-97.

The Raiders are, as usual, loaded on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Kurt Rocco has completed a sizzling 70 percent (191 of 273) of his passes for 3,208 yards and 36 touchdowns while tossing a mere six interceptions. Primary receiver Cecil Shorts III has 80 receptions for 1,474 yards and 16 scores. The backfield duo of Terrance Morring and Scott Panchik has combined for 1,733 yards rushing and 25 touchdowns, though the latter won’t play Saturday due to injury.

Yet it’s quite possible the Raider defense is even better. They are ranked first among Division III teams nationally against the run and second in both overall defense and scoring defense. They have registered 37 sacks and 23 interceptions. Linebacker Judd Lutz has been nominated for the annual Gagliardi Trophy symbolizing the top player in Division III football.

Marzka is taking for granted that Mount Union will make big plays both offensively and defensively. He believes his team must avoid collapsing in such situations to boast any chance of pulling a monumental upset.

“We have to win the turnover battle,” he said. “Looking at it statistically, when Mount Union has won the turnover battle over the last decade, they’re something like 115-0. The next thing is that we have to respond. They have good players who are going to make big plays. We have to slow them down and prevent big plays as much as we can, but also understand that they’re going to make big plays and we have to respond punch to punch. If not, the Purple Avalanche is going to start to roll. Our players can’t be intimidated.”

The Lions are no pussycats, but have struggled at times defensively, yielding 19.5 points a game. Quarterback Tanner Kelly, who has passed for 2,823 yards, 21 touchdowns and just three interceptions, paces the high-powered offense.

Kelly’s favorite receiver is Nate Romig, who has snagged 86 passes for 1,276 yards and 12 touchdowns. Albright has displayed depth at receiver. Running back Josan Holmes, Sean Caldwell, Scott Pillar and Luke Wallace all have at least 26 receptions. But the all-purpose Holmes is their leading rusher with just 568 yards.

The defense is led by defensive end Alvin Thomas with 10 sacks and 11 tackles for losses. If the Purple Raiders are vulnerable anywhere, it’s in pass protection. They have surrendered 42 sacks this season, which means Thomas could add to his impressive total.

“(Thomas) has a great burst out of his stance and he’s good at beating the offensive lineman to the edge,” said Mount Union coach Larry Kehres. “He’s a good-sized young man and has the quickness and speed to go with it.”

Kehres is also quite leery of the prolific Kelly.

“He’s got a good, quick and strong arm,” he said. “He sets and gets rid of the ball quickly. And three picks – that’s not many. He’s appropriately cautious in his decision making.”

Albright can’t be too cautious on Saturday. As the “kids” playing against the “big boys” they really have nothing to lose.