Four weeks of playoffs have come to an end and the Division III National Championship game is all that’s left to decide the 2015 season. The No. 1 Mount Union Purple Raiders are set to take on the third-ranked St. Thomas (Minn.) Tommies in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl Friday night from Salem, Virginia.
The Purple Raiders are no strangers to the Stagg Bowl. It is the 11th consecutive season that they have ended the season in Virginia, and the 19th time in the past 22 years that the father-son combo of Larry and Vince Kehres have reached the championship game.
Vince took the reins from his father in 2013 and had lost consecutive Stagg Bowls to Wisconsin-Whitewater in 2013 and 2014. In the national semifinals, Mount Union faced their old rival and put the ghosts of Stagg Bowls past behind them. Mount Union won in dominating fashion 36-6.
“One of the things that was most enjoyable to me about Saturday was how many former players were at the game,” Kehres said. “Our guys just fed off that. It was pretty special.
“You want your team on a path of playing their best football each week. We played at a very high level on Saturday to beat a great opponent, and we want to build on that one step and peak a bit more this week.”
A lot has been made of the rivalry between UW-Whitewater and Mount Union, one that had seen them face off for the national championship nine out of the past ten seasons. Head coaches have changed, two classes have graduated, but great football was always expected. Kehres said it was never about avenging the losses to UW-Whitewater, it was about the bigger picture.
“Our goal is to win the Ohio Athletic Conference Championship and the national championship, it didn’t have anything to do with beating any specific opponent,” Kehres said. “I don't think our guys will lack motivation this week. We have tremendous respect for St. Thomas, and having played them once in the past, we know what type of program they are.”
The Purple Raiders enter the game as an offensive juggernaut behind the No. 1 scoring offense in all of Division III, averaging 53.6 points per game. They are powered by senior back Logan Nemeth whose 1,737 yards on the ground led the No 3 rushing attack in the nation, averaging 317.6 yards per game. Mount Union features a balanced running game that saw the Purple Raiders set a school record with 4,446 yards rushing on the season.
Senior quarterack Taurice Scott had a remarkable season leading the balanced attack through the air. He chipped in 3,139 yards passing with a 41:5 touchdown to interception ratio while adding 800 yards rushing. Scott’s aerial presence, combined with Nemeth have Mount Union ranked third in the nation with 555.9 yards a game.
“Offensively with a new quarterback, we were finding our way early on,” Kehres said. “I remember after the first game not thinking we ran the ball as well as we wanted to. Our offensive play calling and our unit gelling over the course of the past 13 weeks has let our team be where we are right now.”
As to be expected under Vince Kehres tutelage — who spent eight seasons as the Purple Raider defensive coordinator — the defense is amongst the best in the nation. The 14-0 Mount Union squad posted six shutouts this season, which led to a nation’s best defense in both yards (188.3 per game) and scoring (7.5 points per game).
All-American senior defensive lineman Tom Lally leads a frightening group that gets into the backfield and causes chaos. His 18 sacks this season were both a school record and tops for the nation's top sack artists (63 team sacks). He, defensive back Alex Kocheff and linebacker Jonathan Gonell have appeared in every game since 2012 and will be playing in their fourth Stagg Bowl together.
“I remember the first time I was looking at the video tape in the days right after our season ended in 2011,” Kehres said, speaking of Lally. “I saw his highlight tape, and my initial thought was, ‘boy, we’re probably not going to get this guy to come visit.’ I called him immediately and he was interested right away. He came down here and it was just a match.
“He’s constantly in the weight room, he’s always focused in at practice and trying to perfect his techniques. He wants to be on a championship team. He got a little taste of that as a freshman, and it’s been his goal to get his team back. Now as a senior, this is his team and he wants to end it with a W.”
The last time the Purple Raiders won the Stagg Bowl was 2012. Larry Kehres was the head coach, and they won in dominating fashion by a score of 28-10. The team they beat was the Tommies.
Glenn Caruso took over the Tommies in 2008, one year after they finished 2-8. By 2011 he had the team in the NCAA championship semifinals, and the following season his team would meet the Purple Raiders.
The past two seasons have been down years by St. Thomas standards. Back-to-back eight win years saw them miss the playoffs in 2013 and get bumped in the first round in 2014. They entered the 2015 season not even ranked inside the top ten in the nation’s preseason poll. They weren’t even projected to win their own conference.
“The difference [between 2012 and 2015] is that we may not have the marquee talent that the teams in 2011 and 2012 had,” Tommies head coach Glenn Caruso said. “We did not have a single guy who was a preseason All-American. That speaks to their togetherness and selflessness. We are deeper than in years past, and we are healthier than we have ever been.”
Now, behind a 14-0 record they find themselves right back where they want to be -- playing for a national championship.
“We’re ecstatic to be back in a situation where we are going to be back in Salem, Virginia.” Caruso said. “Obviously we’ve been there before, certainly not as many times as our opponent. But the last three years it has been one of the focal points to get back to this moment.”
St. Thomas comes into the Stagg Bowl not far off of Mount Union’s offensive numbers. They are fifth in total offense averaging 529.4 yards a game, while right behind Mount Union at second in the nation in scoring at 52.5 points a game. A lmajority of those touchdowns have come from junior running back Jordan Roberts.
“He’s tough enough and strong enough to run over defenders,” Caruso described his star back, “but as soon as guys start bearing down on him, he has enough vision and athleticism to go around them. He’s a tough matchup at this level and we’re very proud to have him at St. Thomas.”
Roberts has 1,957 yards rushing this season, leading the nation at any NCAA level with 32 rushing touchdowns (Mount Union's Logan Nemeth is second with 27 touchdowns). Unfortunately for the Purple Raider defense, he is not their only weapon. Senior quarterback John Gould has led St. Thomas to an 18-1 record over his tenure, passing for 2,851 yards this season while throwing 25 touchdowns.
“This team is more balanced than that  one was." Caruso said. "That game taught us a lot, and I think we are who we are because we embraced the failures better than most do. You never like to lose, but what a blessing it was for all of the things that we learned.”
Defensively, the Tommies rank close to Mount Union. They have the third best total defense in Division III (226.6 yards per game), while tied for second best in scoring defense at a mere 9.9 points a game. They did it with a dedicated group, willing to do just about anything to better the team.
“We have three new starters on defense, but seven guys were in new positions,” Caruso said. “When you recruit the right type of kid that is selfless and knows that the team is more important than him it’s not [difficult].
"There is not a single position move that was met with any complacency or whining. The results speak for themselves.”
Where they may have an edge is Caruso’s innovative play calling approach. He has made a living going for it on fourth down, faking extra points and field goals, and faking punts in critical situations. They run them so efficiently they are almost common place… just don’t call them trick plays.
“A lot of people say it looks riskier,” Caruso said. “I don’t believe in trick plays, I believe that there is good football and there is bad football. When a team overreacts to something, those are situations that you could expose them. They occur more often than not on fourth downs and some of our fakes on special teams. You may say faking a field goal is risky, but I’ll say rushing eleven guys is just as risky.”
“I kind of like it,” Kehres said of Caruso’s fourth down/special teams playbook. “I see a lot of good things that they do. It’s going to certainly be a big challenge to defend against all of it, but at the same time I think it’s very innovative and it’s great.”
Caruso has great respect for Mount Union as well as the other teams that have been part of the most recent DIII playoff football lore like Whitewater and Linfield. He understands that those programs may be what he called the standard. But to win, he also understands they don’t have to be them, they have to be the St. Thomas team that has earned their way to this huge opportunity.
“Im hoping on Friday night, we can be the best us we can be.”