It’s that time of year. The Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl is set to kickoff Friday night at 7 from Salem, Virginia. Mount Union has made the trip from Alliance, Ohio for the eleventh straight year. They prepare to face off against the St. Thomas Tommies for the second time in the past four seasons.
The Purple Raiders' offense is second to none. Quite literally, no offense in the land had outscored the high-octane MU offense this season as they dropped 53.6 points a game. Senior quarterback Taurice Scott — who happened to be one of the Purple Raiders' standout wide receivers in 2014 — led a balanced attack through the air connecting with top returning wide receiver -- senior Roman Namdar ---for 19 touchdowns, tied for best in the nation. Senior running back Logan Nemeth held it down on the ground by rushing for 1,737 yards, leading a MU record-setting rushing attack that totaled 4,446 yards.
This defense, however, has been out of this world. MU came into 2015 with a majority of its starters returning from 2014’s amazing defense. They gave up only 9.3 points a game while allowing 239.6 yards a game in last year's run to the Stagg Bowl. They surpassed those numbers this season as the nation’s best defense.
They allowed 105 points all season (an average of 7.5 a game) and a mere 188.3 yards per game. To put into perspective just how little success opposing teams had against this impressive defense, Jordan Roberts — the St. Thomas’ star running back that the Purple Raiders will be facing Friday — has scored 206 points this year (14.7 a game), averaging 142.2 yards per game all by his lonesome.
The defense is led by a core of seniors that have been together since Mount Union’s last Stagg Bowl victory in 2012 against St. Thomas. Defensive lineman Tom Lally — named an AFCA All-American on Tuesday — has been a terrifying force in the backfield, registering a nation’s best 18 sacks this year. Defensive back Alex Kocheff (the team leader in tackles) and linebacker Jonathan Gonell have also played every game side by side with Lally for the past four seasons.
Senior linebacker Hank Spencer has been along for the ride as well. Spencer has been a key part of the Mount Union defense for the past four seasons, and a vital part of the team serving as captain for three years. He — like his defensive counterparts — has several on-field accolades, most recently earning the Gene Slaughter Award in 2015 as the OAC’s top linebacker.
"There are a lot of veterans," MU head coach Vince Kehres said. "There are five or six guys who played a good deal in 2012 when they were freshmen. It's a very experienced unit that I think has seen just about anything you can possibly throw at them. They've done a great job at tackling and pursuing the ball with great effort all season."
Spencer is also brilliant. He always has been, graduating North Putnam High School early in December of 2011 and jumping right into spring practices a few month later. He has a list of off-field honors as long as Mount Union championships, earning consecutive Capital One Academic All District honors as well as meriting back-to-back Academic All-OAC recognition, just to name a few. It was seemingly in his blood to excel.
"He grew up in a coaching family," Kehres explained. "Both parents were educators and coaches. He also had a couple of older sisters that were very good student-athletes. Hank has that great character."
The senior linebacker boasts a 3.99 GPA. Spencer has been invaluable to this team, bringing a balance to the defense that has them focused both on and off the field.
“Hank is a tremendous young man,” Kehres said. “He’s very well respected on our campus, not only amongst our team but amongst the faculty and the administrators and the student body.
“To be as good of a player as he is and be as well prepared each week and then be able to maintain a 3.99 at the same time, that shows the young players what they’re capable of — what type of balance we expect guys to have between what we put in on the field and academically as well.”
Again, this is nothing new for Spencer. He looks to take home his third straight NCAA Elite 90 Award which is presented to the student athlete with the highest GPA at a championship event. He acknowledges that he has achieved this balance in his life by what he has learned on the football field.
“People know about the success of the Mount Union program,” Spencer said. “We come to work every day, and there’s a consistency you try to create in workouts, practices and games. The key to success in the classroom is pretty similar. You need to be consistent, you can’t take days off and not pay attention. I think that’s why I have had success in the classroom because I have been able to translate that from the football field.”
Spencer has also translated his excellent work in the classroom — a Computer Science major if you were wondering — into his future career. Much like he did in high school, he's leaving school early and not wasting any time with the next phase of his life.
“I’m working out in Chicago with a software design and engineering company. I just finished my last final yesterday, and start my job in January.”
Lally and Kocheff joined Spencer and fellow senior defenders Mike Furda and Tre Jones on the All-North Region first team this season, with Gonell snagging second-team honors. These seniors feed off each other and push each other to the limits. The frightening thing is that when they play together as a well-oiled machine, there is seemingly no limit to the success they can achieve.
“It’s definitely a huge bond,” Spencer said. “We laugh at times how in tune we are with each other on the field. Even when something goes wrong, we are all on the same page and it works out.
“When you have played as many snaps and games together as we have, you figure things out and know what to expect from the other guy. We don’t even need to communicate, because we’re all on that same page.”
Spencer began his collegiate career a bit spoiled, winning a championship right out of the gates as a freshman against this same St. Thomas team he prepares to face Friday. He has seen the glories of solid seasons, only to see them end with a loss the past two years. So how special would it be for Spencer and his teammates to end their collegiate career just like it began?
“I’m not sure that there’s a better way,” Spencer said. “It would be really nice to go out on top. It would be special to get everybody in this program another ring.”