SALEM, VA — For the first time in 11 Stagg Bowls, there will be a new DIII national champion. Neither Mount Union nor Wisconsin-Whitewater will be crowned in Salem, but instead, Wisconsin-Oshkosh and University of Mary Hardin-Baylor will square off, both looking for their first NCAA DIII Football Championship title.
Wisconsin-Oshkosh (No. 5 AFCA Poll/No. 4 d3football.com Poll)
The Titans are not only looking for their first national championship, but this is their first appearance in the Stagg Bowl in program history. They enter the game sitting at 13-1, defeating last year’s runner up St. Thomas (Minn.) in the quarterfinals and then John Carroll -- who made waves in November by ending Mount Union’s 112-game regular season winning streak -- in the semifinals. Their lone loss of the season came at the hands of perennial Stagg Bowl favorite, Wisconsin-Whitewater, who finished the regular season No. 1 in the American Football Coaches Association Poll.
It will be interesting to watch how the Titans' defense matches up against the high-powered offense of The Crusaders. Wisconsin-Oshkosh's defense has been stingy when it comes to points allowed this season, finsihing sixth in the nation by allowing just 12.9 points a game. They will need to be atop their game Friday night, as UMHB comes in at second in the nation for scoring offense, dropping 49.4 points a game.
Players to watch:
Two defensive players really standout for the Titans. Senior linebacker Reese Dziedzic became UW-Oshkosh’s first-ever defensive All-American, earning AFCA Second Team honors. He led the team for the fourth straight year in tackles, recording 87, two of which were sacks.
Joining him in the secondary on the watch list is senior defensive back Johnny Eagan. Eagan could make it difficult on The Cru’s senior star quarterback Blake Jackson, as he intercepted eight passes this season, breaking up eight more along the way.
Offensively, the Titans are fueled by a two-headed monster out of the backfield that contributed 26 total touchdowns this season. Their matchup against UMHB’s rush defense — ninth in the nation at just 76.6 yards per game — will certainly be one of the deciding factors in the game. Junior running back Dylan Hecker was the lead back, rushing for 1,113 yards and scoring 16 times, while senior Devon Linzenmeyer added 848 yards on the ground and ten more touchdowns.
Mary Hardin-Baylor (No. 2 AFCA Poll/ No. 1 d3football.com Poll)
Quickly, who were the last two teams to compete in a Stagg Bowl before the Mount Union/Whitewater/St. Thomas Stagg Bowl Era began? If you guessed UMHB, you are correct, as it was the national runner up to Linfield in 2004.
Returning to Salem for the second time, the Crusaders — more affectionately known as The Cru by the UMHB faithful — enter on the heels of a perfect season. Sitting at 14-0, UMHB did the unthinkable and ended Mount Union’s 11-year run in Salem by defeating the Purple Raiders 14-12 in last weekend’s semifinals.
Players to watch:
Senior defensive end Teidrick Smith can single-handedly change the outcome of the game. The AFCA First Team All-American took home his third consecutive American Southwest Conference Defensive Player of the Year with yet another stellar performance. He recorded 56 total tackles, 14.5 of which were sacks and 22.5 that went for a loss.
The Cru is deep defensively as defensive back Baylor Mullins anchors a pass defense that led the nation causing 45 turnovers (the Titans are right behind them, third in the nation with 40 turnovers) behind a DIII-best 32 interceptions. The Second Team All-American registered 93 total tackles and six interceptions, scoring two of their nation's best eight defensive touchdowns.
The offense is led by a balance through the air and the ground. Sophomore running back Markeith Miller had a monster season, rushing for 1,472 yards, which was eighth best in Division III. He added 20 touchdowns on the ground, tied for sixth in the nation, while scoring one more through the air.
Senior quarterback Blake Jackson shined in his first season as full-time quarterback. He totaled 45 touchdowns for The Cru — 35 passing and 10 more rushing — while throwing for 3,111 yards, good for 16th in the nation.
While sophomore T.J. Josey may have seemed like his favorite target — pulling in a team best 1,006 yards — Jackson threw touchdowns to nine different receivers with junior Bryce Wilkerson leading the team with nine, Josey chipping in eight and senior Wykeyhe Walker added seven.
The Stagg Bowl kicks off at 7 p.m. ET from Salem Stadium Friday night. Be sure to check back to NCAA.com for live updates.