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Wayne Cavadi | | December 15, 2017

Mount Union, Mary Hardin-Baylor face off for national championship

  Mary Hardin-Baylor looks to repeat in the 2017 Stagg Bowl.

The 45th DIII Football Championship, more affectionately known as the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, is set for Friday, Dec. 15 from Salem, Virginia. Two Stagg Bowl veterans head to Salem Stadium as Mount Union squares off against reigning champion Mary Hardin-Baylor.

Interactive bracket

With two DIII heavyweights ready to go head-to-head, that means there are plenty of storylines to watch in this 2017 rendition of the Stagg Bowl. Here are just a few:

Mary Hardin-Baylor streaking 

The Crusaders are cruising coming into its third Stagg Bowl in program history. The Cru won their first-ever DIII Football Championship last season in a defensive slugfest against Wisconsin-Oshkosh 10-7. UMHB finished the season perfect and kept rolling right back to Salem, winners of 29 consecutive games.

RELATED: UMHB beats UW-Oshkosh for first Stagg Bowl title

Mount Union of course is no stranger to streaks. They hold just about every record in the books when it comes to winning. The Purple Raiders once won 55 straight games and broke their own 110-game regular season win streak record by reeling off 112 straight regular season wins from 2005-16. Though the streak was snapped last season, Mount Union is firing on all cylinders once again, winners of 14 in a row.

No. 1 offense vs. No. 1 defense

There is firepower aplenty on the Mount Union offensive side of the ball. The Purple Raiders' No. 1-ranked offense (53.3 points per game) has two 1,000-yard rushers in Jawanza Evans-Morris and Josh Petruccelli and a trio of wide receivers with double-digit touchdowns. Justin Hill (19 touchdowns), Jared Ruth (14) and Braeden Friss (11) all proved to be reliable targets where it matters most — in the end zone.

“It’s very difficult because they are very talented and have so many different tools," Mary Hardin-Baylor head coach Pete Fredenburg said of defending that offense. "The critical thing is to lineup correctly and let our guys have a chance, train them to see the things we think Mount Union will attack us with and develop it into a reaction of a thought process. The things that Mount Union presents are a very versatile and dynamic quarterback, a great running back, their offensive lineman always do a great job blocking, and then skilled receivers. We understand the task at hand but we know we have some good football players on our side of the ball as well. It’s going to be a whale of a football game.”

For Mount Union, it all begins with quarterback D'Angelo Fulford. The sophomore had a huge campaign in his first full season as the starting quarterback. Fulford threw for 2,959 yards with 49 touchdowns and just three interceptions while adding 426 yards and eight more touchdowns on the ground. Despite throwing an untimely interception in the semifinals, he was instrumental in the Purple Raiders' 25-point comeback against Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

RELATED: Mount Union rallies to advance to Stagg Bowl

“One of the most important qualities in a quarterback is poise," Mount Union head coach Vince Kehres said. "D’Angelo is still a young player but I’ve seen that attribute get stronger for him as the year’s gone on. Maybe last year as a freshman or early in the year, play like that may have bothered him, but I didn’t see that from him on Saturday. His poise and his confidence stayed very strong through that adversity, and our team fed off that poise and confidence.

“Timing and accuracy in the passing game is really critical in a well balanced offense. We’re fortunate to have some depth in that unit, to be able to spread the ball around to several guys. We’re going to need that unit to really come through us if we’re going to have success.”

The disadvantage for the Purple Raiders, of course, is Mary Hardin-Baylor's No. 1-ranked defense. 

“They do a great job with those men," Kehres said. "Obviously as a defensive guy, I can appreciate a good defense. We have to treat it as a normal game in terms of our preparation and try to identify ways we can attack them. There’s certainly not a lot of obvious weaknesses on that defense. We’re a confident group, we got to try to find some ways to move the chains and put some points on the board.”

Stagg Bowl XLV By the Numbers
Record 14-0 14-0
Points per game 53.3 38.1
Points allowed per game 13.8 7.0
Yards per game 492.1 379.7
Yards allowed per game 252.6 222.9

While this defense is chock full of seniors, most of them are experiencing newfound roles and increased playing time. The Crusaders lost big-time defenders like All-American Teidrick Smith and Matt Cody, but seamlessly filled the void with arguably an even better defense this year. Senior Ajay Fanene leads team with 16 sacks, while cornerback Kris Brown has five interceptions and four total defensive touchdowns. 

“It’s been a very positive experience," Fredenburg said of the new-look defense. "It’s really a positive surprise. Just the evolution of our players, linebackers for example. We moved Jalen Martin who’s been a utility player, and he’s really developed into an outstanding football player and we really rely on him. I just think Tevin Jones is one of the best linebackers we’ve ever had.”

A rematch to remember will end the Salem Stadium Stagg Bowl Era

Twenty five years ago, the Stagg Bowl moved from Bradenton, Florida to Salem, Virginia. Mount Union won the very first Stagg Bowl played at Salem Stadium and have continued to make its mark on the DIII record books in the past quarter of a century.

Next season, the Stagg Bowl moves to Texas, so it's only fitting that Mount Union is in the last Stagg Bowl at Salem Stadium (at least for now). This is the Purple Raiders' 20th trip to their home away from home, winners of 12 Stagg Bowls in Virginia. It started with head coach Larry Kehres and continued on with his son Vince winning the most recent Mount Union championship in 2015. 

The Salem Stadium finale is a rematch of last year's semifinals, the third time the two have met in the national semifinals. Mary Hardin-Baylor ended Mount Union's 114-game road winning streak by holding the Purple Raiders to 12 points, a feat only a few have ever accomplished. What would have been Mount Union's 12th straight trip to Salem instead saw UMHB raise their program's first trophy. 

These two programs know each other and will be sure to close out Salem Stadium in grand fashion.