It was a week of unseasonably warm weather along the eastern coastline. Seemingly on cue, the temperatures dropped to near freezing as the first NCAA championship football game of the season got underway. It was 34 degrees at kickoff, with winds reportedly gusting into the stadium at 22 miles per hour.
But this is championship football, and if you're playing that late into the season, it’s expected.
Just like it seemingly has become expected that in order to become the DIII national champion, you are going to have to go through Mount Union. It was its 11th straight appearance, having now won five of those titles.
“Hats off to Mount Union,” St. Thomas head coach Glenn Caruso said. “I’ve said it now for many years, they are the standard in Division III. They are the standard that someday if we work long enough and hard enough maybe we hope to be. They played a fantastic game tonight.”
One would have expected to see the two All-American running backs featured heavily in this game on both sides of the field. Prior to the game St. Thomas’ Jordan Roberts was named a First Team All-American by d3football.com while Mount Union’s Logan Nemeth was named to the Second Team.
Nemeth took control in the second half, and along with junior running back Bradley Mitchell put the game out of reach. Nemeth rushed for over 200 yards (220 to be precise) for the third straight playoff game while reeling off two late touchdowns to give the Purple Raiders a comfortable cushion.
His Tommies counterpart Roberts also had a big day, running hard all the way to the end, scoring his second touchdown late in the second half with the score 49-28, and finishing the day with 135 yards and two touchdowns of his own.
We expected to see a lot of fourth down plays, fakes and onside kicks with the innovative Glenn Caruso on the sidelines for St. Thomas. Caruso and his Tommies did not disappoint as they converted their first three fourth down attempts successfully including a 58-yard bomb from senior quarterback John Gould to Nick Waldvogel to give the lead back to the Tommies when MU tied it at 14.
What they didn’t expect was Lane Clark.
Lane Clark was an all-state and all-conference four-year letter winner at North Vermillion High School. He is a hulking specimen that looks more like a defensive end than a tight end, standing at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds. He has patiently bided his time while at Mount Union, playing sparingly over his four years.
Entering the 2015 playoffs, Clark was used minimally, watching the high-powered offense from the sidelines more than on the field. Heading into these same 2015 playoffs, Clark had played in 39 games with a total of 105 career receiving yards. Two weeks ago, in a playoff game against the high-octane Wesley offense, Clark played arguably the biggest game of his career, reeling in 70 yards through the air along with a touchdown.
Until the Stagg Bowl, that is.
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“He’s a guy that’s really persevered for us,” coach Vince Kehres said. “He didn’t have a lot of numbers during the regular season. He hung in there, he kept working, really grinded it out. And then here he is the last couple weeks in the playoffs making big plays for us. I’m very proud of him.”
The Purple Raiders trailed for the first time all season, getting shutout in the first quarter trailing 7-0. When they fell behind by two scores five minutes into the second quarter, MU desperately needed a score. Enter Clark.
Senior quarterback and Stagg Bowl MVP Taurice Scott found his big guy for the touchdown they were searching for. The momentum quickly turned as a mere two minutes later, Scott -- who finished the game throwing for 201 yards and three touchdown, while adding 54 yards and a touchdown on the ground -- was able to find senior wide receiver Roman Namdar for a 29-yard bomb tying the game.
“I was really just in the moment,” Clark said. “The coaching staff did a great job scheming everything up and calling every play at the right time. It ran like clock work.”
The second half would open with the aforementioned signature Caruso fourth down play, and the Tommies would take a 21-14 lead. It didn’t even last two minutes. Taurice Scott would connect with the big man once again, this time on a 13-yard touchdown, tying the game at 21.
Two receptions for 20 yards. Two touchdowns. That's a memorable stat line. The Purple Raiders would never trail again en route to their 12th Stagg Bowl title and first since 2012.
“Taurice — with him at quarterback it’s unbelievable what we can do on offense," Clark said. "When he is back there in the pocket it’s all Taurice. He does a great job finding the open guy.”
A lot has been made over the past week of the group of seniors that are on Mount Union. It’s a who’s who of DIII superstars. All-American Tom Lally — who notched two more sacks in the Stagg Bowl for 20 on the season — Alex Kocheff and Jonathan Gonell played every game together since their last win in the 2012 Stagg Bowl. Hank Spencer is their three-time captain who wrapped up his third consecutive NCAA Elite Award. Logan Nemeth, Taurice Scott… the list of seniors goes on and on.
“This senior group is amazing,” Clark said. “We came in with a great senior class our freshman year and we learned a lot from them. We tried to exhibit everything they taught us.”
Those seniors have a nice bookend to their career. They came in winning a title and are leaving with another ring on their finger. In between, they lost a total of two games — which were unfortunately in back-to-back Stagg Bowls. They filled their two championships with lessons and memories, and now they get to leave behind their collegiate careers the right way.
“It's extremely different. We’re going home winners,” Lally said. “We’re really excited. It’s going to be a much more fun bus ride than the past two years.”
For Vince Kehres, the third time was a charm. Since taking over the program as head coach from his father Larry, he was searching for the elusive Stagg Bowl championship. The wait is over. Kehres can now call himself a champion head coach.
“It means a lot,” Kehres said. I had a lot of great mentors to get to this point. I had a lot of great players and a lot of great coaches that contributed to this, so I think this feels great for a lot of us.”