Dec. 10, 2009

By Marty Gitlin
Special to

The Wesley football team has played in two previous NCAA Division III semifinals. They lost both to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater by an average of 44 points.

That is the good news and the bad news. The good news is that the Wolverines won’t have to play Whitewater in Saturday’s noon semifinal. The bad news is that they will be traveling instead to face perennial champion Mount Union in a battle of unbeatens.

It’s called going from the frying pan into the fire.

Indeed, the Purple Raiders are white-hot. They boast the longest current winning streak in college football at 28 games and are coming off their 18th consecutive Ohio Athletic Conference title. They’ve won 10 of the last 15 Division III crowns and are on the verge of another after a 55-3 dismantling of Albright last week, which was earned despite five turnovers.

“We’re trying to figure out how Ohio State got purple uniforms over here,” quipped Wesley coach Mike Drass. “Our goal is to beat the best team in the country. They’re the best and we realize that. We have to focus on playing our best football and execution. And we have to eliminate mistakes.”

While the Raiders (138-4 since 2000) have steamrolled over every foe in their path, the Wolverines have been far from shabby in recent years. They are making their fifth straight playoff appearance with arguably their finest team. They rank fifth in the country in scoring defense at 10.3 points a game and rushing yards yielded per game at 71.2. They scored an average of 35.8 points a game.

That last statistic has been achieved greatly through the arm of quarterback Shane McSweeny, who was recruited out of high school as a defensive back. He has thrown for 2,776 yards and a whopping 35 touchdowns this season. Twenty of those scoring strikes have landed in the hands of opportunistic wide receiver Ellis Krout, who leads the team with 53 catches and 855 yards receiving.

The backfield is anchored by Aaron Jackson, who has rushed for 1,016 yards and 11 touchdowns. The slippery McSweeny has added 678 yards on the ground.

“They have a passing, running quarterback and that’s always difficult,” warned Mount Union coach Larry Kehres. “He runs extremely well, plus they have great speed and height at wideout. We’re not particularly tall in the secondary. They have a good tight end and a tandem of backs who have produced well. They run the sweep extremely well.

“They also have outstanding offensive tackles. You can’t get to this point without having a good offensive line. They have all the positions covered and that’s why they’re such a balanced run-pass team. We have to play balanced defense and have our defenders in the spots where they need to be because they’ll find our weaknesses and get the ball to them.”
What weaknesses? That’s what Drass would like to know.

“I don’t see any weaknesses,” flatly stated the Wesley coach.

Weaknesses are indeed are hard to find on both sides of the ball. Kurt Rocco is the nation’s highest-rated quarterback and has completed 71 percent of his passes for 3,475 yards and a preposterous 38 touchdowns with just six interceptions. Receiver Cecil Shorts has 88 catches for more than 1,525 yards and sidekick Vince Petruziello has added 52 receptions for 826 yards. Featured back Terrance Morring is averaging more than five yards a carry and has exceeded the 1,000-yard mark on the season with 15 touchdowns.

The Mount Union defense is led by a rapidly improving secondary and end Joe Millings, who has registered 18.5 tackles for losses and 10.5 sacks.

Pressuring Rocco should be a key for Wesley. And much of that task falls on defensive end Chris Mayes, who has racked up a team-high 32.5 tackles for losses and 13 sacks. He is aided by linebacker Mike Asiedu (90 tackles).

 “Their defensive ends, linebackers and guys on the defensive side of the ball can really run to the football,” Drass said. “Their defensive backs are pretty aggressive and physical. On film, we haven’t seen anyone run past them.”

Of course, whoever wins this match will have to face Wesley’s nemesis – University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, which plays host to Linfield on Saturday in the other semifinal. The championship is scheduled for Dec. 19 at Salem, Va.