It was a magical season for Mount Union. Sure, it may seem like it was business as usual. The Purple Raiders rumbled to their ninth consecutive undefeated season in the Ohio Athletic Conference which led to their 23rd consecutive conference title.
And once again, they are back in Friday’s Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl for the tenth season in a row. The Purple Raiders, a team so accustomed to winning and winning big, still found a way to make 2014 a historic season.
What head coach Vince Kehres, the 2014 OAC Coach of the Year, was able to do on both sides of the ball this season was simply remarkable. Their offensive output and margin of victory was video game-esque. Kehres' Purple Raiders are sitting at 14-0 after outscoring their opponents 844-131 this season. The 844 points scored is an NCAA record, breaking their own mark of 792 in the 2012 championship season. But Kehres knows that despite all of Mount Union’s 2014 success, that it’s no time to rest on their laurels.
Kehres is 28-1 at the helm of Mount Union since taking over for his father Larry, who coached the team from 1986 to 2012. The Raiders have gone 114-5 since 2007. All five of those losses have been against Lance Leipold and Wisconsin-Whitewater in the Stagg Bowl. The two teams are set to square off yet again Friday night in Salem.
Last year’s loss was one of the worst in Mount Union history. The 52-14 defeat to the Warhawks left the Purple Raiders with a lot to think about.
“We needed to have more depth, more men that could contribute at a high level,” Kehres said about last year’s Stagg Bowl loss. “I think our team is much improved from a year ago, there are a lot of the same players so we are a year more experienced, another offseason under our belt. They did what we asked them to do. We asked them to man up and own up to the fact that we took a pretty bad beating and in order to get better we needed to improve in all areas of the team. I think they bought into that up to this point.”
Mount Union definitely built on its depth. The high-flying offensive attack saw three running backs run for more than 500 yards with five or more touchdowns on the season. The backfield was led by sophomore Bradley Mitchell and his 1,144 yards and 19 touchdowns. The receiving core saw four receivers go for more than 600 yards with at least eight touchdowns. The group is led by junior sensations Taurice Scott and Roman Namdar. But what really makes the Purple Raiders go is quarterback Kevin Burke.
Burke took home his second consecutive Gagliardi Award. He is the first player in DIII history to take home the award for the divisions’ best player twice. He added the OAC 2014 Offensive Player of the Year Award to his resume as well as AFCA All-American honors. Burke is 43-1 as a starter in his illustrious career. This season was perhaps not only his best, but one of the greatest ever: he has thrown for 4,089 yards, an NCAA-best 49 touchdowns and and other-worldly 187.7 passer rating. He added 520 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns on the ground. If the Purple Raiders can break the code and beat the Warhawks for the first time in their last four attempts, Burke could go down as one of the greatest players in DIII history.
“It’s Kevin’s 45th start for us. 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,” Kehres said.
The defense is full of stars as well. Safety Alex Kocheff was the OAC Defensive Back of the Year and led a defense that was No. 2 in scoring (9.3 points per game) and No. 3 overall in total defense (239.6 yards per game). He was joined by the OAC Defensive Lineman of the Year Tom Lally. Lally, who had five sacks and three fumble recoveries, hopes to overcome the Warhawks offensive line advantage they have held over the Raiders the past few Stagg Bowls.
“We have to be great with our technique,” Kehres said. “We have to a great job reacting to blocks and use our advantage of agility, good lateral quickness to try and gain gap leverage and get a little bit of a pass rush going.”
The Heidelberg game in week six of the season may have been the turning point of the season. The Purple Raiders hadn’t faced much resistance heading into their Week 6 matchup, when Heidelberg was a team looking to prove their name could be said in the same sentence as mighty Mount Union. It was all for naught, as the Purple Raiders steam rolled a Heidelberg team that finished 8-2 on the year 58-17. They were clicking on all cylinders offensively and defensively as it was their most complete game of the season to that point.
They would really only be tested two more times for the rest of the season, both at the hands of OAC rival and the No. 9 team in the country John Carroll. John Carroll lost its regular season and third-round tournament game to the Purple Raiders by a combined nine points. It still would not be enough to shake the determination of this Raiders team to return to the Stagg Bowl against their long-time nemesis.
This is the ninth time in the past ten seasons that Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater will battle in the Stagg Bowl. The Warhawks have a commanding 5-3 lead in the series. The Purple Raiders, who have the most championships in DIII history, may have the right coaching staff and players in place to finally break the code and end the Warhawks current winning streak.
“One thing I love about our coaching staff,” Kehres said, “is that we graduated from Mount Union, we played football here. It’s an advantage that we can be mentoring players through the process of being a student athlete here at Mount Union. Having some Stagg Bowl experience, having some guys who have played in the game and made the trip down there and know what its about, definitely helps.”