SALEM, Va. -- The stage is set … again.
The two winningest teams in the history of the DIII Football Championship will go at it one more time. Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater will battle for DIII supremacy in the 2014 Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl. This is the ninth time the two teams fight for the title. But don’t call it a rivalry.
“I wouldn’t call it a rival,” Raiders coach Vince Kehres said. “A rivalry -- it’s on your schedule year in and year out. Ohio State and Michigan. We can’t project whether we’ll play Wisconsin-Whitewater every year or not. I like the word respect. We have a lot of respect for each others’ football programs. We respect how hard it is to get to this point of the season and still be alive and still be playing. It’s a game built on mutual respect.”Although this is the ninth time in the past ten seasons that the Raiders and Warhawks will go head-to-head in the championship, this season has a little more meaning than past years. For the Warhawks it will be head coach Lance Leipold’s final championship game of his illustrious 8-year run since he has accepted the head coaching job at Buffalo.
Leipold is 5-1 in the Stagg Bowl since taking over at UW-W -- all against Mount Union. Kehres has gone 28-1 in his two years since taking over as head coach for his father Larry Kehres. The lone loss of his career is a 52-14 defeat to the Warhawks in last year’s Stagg Bowl.
“You’re going to see really clean, crisp football,” Kehres said. “Both teams are going to execute on a very high level and test the execution of the other team. I don’t think there will be a lot of penalties, I don’t think there will be a lot of sloppiness to the game, I think as fan of football you are going to enjoy it.”
The Warhawks finished the season a perfect 10-0 and the No. 1 ranked team in both the D3Football.com poll and the American Football Coaches Association Top 25. They rumbled to a 7-0 conference record and the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title. Leipold, who will bring his 106-6 record into his final Stagg Bowl, looking for his sixth championship knowing it won’t be an easy task.
“[Mount Union] has an excellent program,” Leipold said. “One with pride, one that has a tradition of playing at a very, very high standard. They’re the ones who have been through this thing more consistently. We sat in 2012 on the outside looking in. The thing with both of these programs that I admire about: How do you continue to strive at a high level and making sure you do things? We don’t expect anything less than their highly motivated and best play Friday night.”
Leipold has put together another dynamic team, led by the WIAC Offensive Player of the Year Matt Behrendt. Behrendt has put up 3,305 yards passing and 38 touchdowns with just 6 interceptions for an unbelievable 171.5 passer rating.
“He continues to make great decisions,” Leipold said of his quarterback. “He’s ready to end his career on a high note. He’s done such and excellent job for us. He’s 31-1 as a starter. He’s been an exceptional player and leader for our football team and a very, very big reason that we are here.”
The defense is led by AFCA All-American Brady Garyvold. The senior defensive back has 53 tackles, 7 interceptions and 9 passes defended. Juniors Justin Dischler and Ryan Winske stepped in and led the team in tackles with 90 and 73 respectively.
But, how do they shut down this high-flying Mount Union offense?
“You got to make plays yourself,” Leipold said. “They get you out of your game plan. They”ll score, they’ll hold you and score again, and they’ll get a turnover and the next thing you know you’re really uphill. Then all of a sudden its a runaway freight train. They have the ability to do that and that is a credit to their coaching staff.”
The Warhawks road to the Stagg Bowl was not so easy. They opened the playoffs with a 55-2 blowout of Macalester and had another convincing victory in round two, downing Wabash 38-14. That was were the road got a bit tougher.
The Warhawks were trailing 33-16 heading into the fourth quarter against 12-0 Wartburg. A 21-0 fourth quarter kept championship hopes alive for the Warhawks. The Warhawks were tested yet again in round four as they head to the fourth quarter tied against 11-0 Linfield in round four. Their defense stepped up again, shutting out Linfield, and helping them to the 20-14 victory.
“I don’t know if people thought we could make it this far with some of the graduations from the previous year,” Leipold added. ”The one thing I think our team has been able to show is the resiliency and the competitive nature that they’re going to play 60 minutes. In previous years people have said ‘you haven’t been in a close game, what are you going to do when you get into one?’ Well we have been in some now, and we have been able to fight through that and I’ve been proud of that.”
The Purple Raiders, who will be looking for their DIII record 12th Championship, had an incredible season at the helms of Kehres. Mount Union went 10-0 on the season cruising to its 23rd consecutive Ohio Athletic Conference title.
A potent offense set a record scoring 844 points this season, breaking its own mark of 792 set in 2012. Junior wide receiving duo Roman Namdar and Taurice Scott combined for 2,199 yards receiving and 28 touchdowns making for one of the most prolific offenses in the history of college football.
“We have excellent skilled position players. We do a good job of getting the ball distributed to them fairly evenly so that the defense has to defend the entire width and depth of the field. Our offensive line is a little more experienced than it was a year ago. They have really gelled since day one we haven’t had to try many different combinations of the five guys up there like a year ago.”
The No. 1 offense in the nation in scoring (60.3 per game) and yards (595.2 per game) is led by AFCA All American senior quarterback Kevin Burke. Burke, who is up for his second Gagliardi Award had a season for the ages. He threw for 4,089 yards while leading the nation with 49 touchdown passes.
When he wasn’t doing it through the air, he was at it on the ground, adding 520 yards rushing and 10 more touchdowns to his impressive 2014 season. Should Burke take home the Gagliardi, he would be the first player in the history of the award to do so.
“Its Kevin’s 45th start for us,” Kehres said. “He's seen about everything a defense can throw at him. He knows what he has to do to lead our team and to lead our offense. That’s one thing I think he has had from day one in 2012, he has great poise. Thats a strength of his one that I think is really important at the position he plays.”
“It keeps you up at night,” Warhawks coach Leipold described on planning for Burke. “He’s a pretty special player. Some of the throws, and the different types of throws that he makes, and makes off balance throws and different touches. If you weren't getting ready to play against him, you’d really sit and admire him. The confidence of their receiving core and all the different weapons that they have - it’s the most unique challenge that we’ve had to date.”
If the offensive gusto of the Raiders appears scary, their defense simply adds to the horror. The Raiders allowed only 131 points this season (9.3 per game), outscoring their opponents by 713, including back-to-back shutouts of 75-0 and 62-0.
But, will their defense be up for defending the number one team in the nation?
“Its always a challenge to defend great players,” Kehres said. “Whitewater has a lot of great players and we know that. Our defense will benefit from being a little more experienced and we’ve made some adjustments to our schemes and what we try to do defensively and hopefully that will help us a little bit. We want to play smart and keep the ball in front of us and not let up explosive plays. That’s been our goal all year we’ve done a much better job of taking away big plays this year.”
These two teams know each other well enough to have the utmost respect for each other.
“It’s an amazing feat that these two teams have met this many times especially with the length of the playoffs.” Leipold said. “Both teams have to go through the regular season and four previous rounds of this to really earn their way to Salem. This group has done an excellent job of playing through distractions. We have worked extremely well, we’ve been in some tough games along the way and we are excited for this opportunity Friday night.”