Sizing up the finalists
Except among the purple-clad throng of fans that usually heads
south to Salem this time of year, UW-Whitewater enters Stagg Bowl
XXXIV as the sentimental favorite. Bob Berezowitz, nearing the end
of his 22nd season coaching a team he once quarterbacked, is
retiring. His Warhawks, upstarts last season, represented
themselves well in a 35-28 championship game loss. And this season,
they return carrying the hopes of the other 220-plus
playoff-eligible Division III football Davids against Goliath,
When it comes to the prowess of their Stagg Bowl opponents, the Purple Raiders have seen it all. Every Stagg Bowl participant enters the game during a great season. But what you did against everyone else and what you might have an opportunity to do against Mount Union are two completely different things.
The Raiders winning a ninth Stagg Bowl in 10 tries since 1993 might not be a dramatic story, but the cast changes often enough that it's still new to the players. The hunger is still there.
So on one hand we have a talented, balanced team who will be playing to avenge last season's loss and send their coach into retirement on the highest note possible. On the other we have a talented, balanced team with experience at beating the Warhawks in Salem, and one that's hoping to finish as unbeaten champions for the first time since 2002.
How the heck do we pick a favorite?
Always-trusty Around the Nation comes through with a position-by-position look at the Purple Raiders and Warhawks to help give you an idea who might do what in Salem:
UW-Whitewater: Justin Jacobs
Mount Union: Michael Jorris and Greg Micheli
Rarely, if ever, does a quarterback win a national championship and then return the next season to split time. But Jorris has been sharing the quarterback job with Micheli since the first quarter of the Purple Raiders' first game against Averett, when he threw a TD pass and Micheli ran for one. And that's pretty much what they do. 'Mike is more of a pocket passer while Greg is a better runner,' Kehres said this week. And who are we to doubt Kehres? If he thinks that quarterback is just like any other position where you have two talents you need to get on the field, so you rotate them, then it's probably a good idea.
Jacobs, a 6-1, 195-pound third-year starter, has guided the Warhawks to a 28-1 record the past two seasons. He's completing 57% of his passes this year and has 36 TD passes to six interceptions. UW-Whitewater has always been a running team, but Jacobs' development has allowed them to open up the offense and give them the balance necessary to become elite. He can be rattled, or at least limited, as Mary Hardin-Baylor showed in a 7-3 loss Oct. 28. But Jacobs completed 22 of 47 passes for 310 yards, two TDs and one interception against the Purple Raiders in last season's Stagg Bowl, and not all of it came during the Warhawks' furious comeback. A pass to Pete Schmitt near the end zone last season nearly tied the game at 14 heading into the half.
Micheli and Jorris give Mount Union a solid one-two punch, and both are fairly accurate and careful with the ball. By having two quarterbacks, an early injury doesn't dash the Purple Raiders' hopes. But their substitution pattern may tip the defense as to what plays to watch for, while the Warhawks have their passer, runner and leader on the field at all times.
UW-Whitewater: Justin Beaver, Brady Pittz, Derek Underwood
Mount Union: Nate Kmic, Justin Wray
We compare Beaver and Kmic's great seasons later in the column, and each team has its main back healthy for the big showdown. The midseason injury to Beaver forced Whitewater to develop its younger backs, but the Warhawks have been missing fullback Travis Reuland, a key blocker and receiver, for a month and a half. He will not play Saturday.
Beaver will, and an area to watch for the 5-9, 196-pound junior (1,282 yards, 5.3 per carry) is how he's finishing his runs. When he's completely healthy, the first tackler rarely stops him and he delivers shots on open-field tacklers instead of vice versa. He makes good, quick decisions in Whitewater's zone-blocking run scheme, but how he attacks tacklers will tell you if there are any lingering effects from the broken collarbone.
For Kmic, it's all about his second gear. Similar to Beaver in stature, the 5-9, 190-pound sophomore often relies on a deceptive stride and an innate ability to get his shoulders turned upfield as his burst of speed kicks in. Kmic can make the tough run too, but many of his yards come as he patiently picks his spot on plays which appear to be going nowhere.
'Kmic is special,' Berezowitz said. 'He's a lot like Justin for us. I call it having the wiggle. He's got great vision and excellent speed. I wish we had a video exchange of Saturday's game to see how he got those 371 yards.'
Kehres said he had a chance to meet Beaver last season, and was impressed with him as a person as well as a player. 'They're a better team when he's back,' Kehres said of Beaver, adding that he played in the games that Mount Union studied on tape. Three weeks ago in a 24-21 win over UW-La Crosse, Beaver carried 36 times for 227 yards, and followed with 93- and 66-yard performances.
Wray might be the fastest Purple Raider, and he played a lot last week in split-back formations, catching passes out of the backfield. He can also be a factor in the return game.
Wide receivers/tight ends
UW-Whitewater: Derek Stanley, Neil Mrkvicka, Pete Schmitt
Mount Union: Pierre Garcon, Brandon Boehm, Anthony Antonucci, Chad Reynolds
Each team has an All-American-type game-breaker, in Stanley and Garcon. But the latter reportedly wore a cast the week before the St. John Fisher game, and gamely tried to play, but wasn't himself. Garcon had one catch for three yards, but the Purple Raiders took shots at getting him the ball deep and on timing routes which would get him in the open field. Even if he is still hurt Saturday, Garcon can be a factor blocking downfield in the run game and running routes. I wouldn't call him a decoy, but the Warhawks most certainly have to respect him any time he's on the field. They know all too well. Garcon had seven catches for 107 yards and two TDs in last year's Stagg Bowl, including a 63-yarder that woke Mount Union up after they fell behind 7-0. The Purple Raiders, however, have failed to develop another serious threat, as Antonucci, who splits time at tight end with Reynolds, is second to Garcon's 59 receptions ' with 16.
Stanley (57 catches, 1,059 yards, 17 TDs) is the Warhawks' go-to receiver, and all three of his catches last week against Wesley were for touchdowns. But Whitewater's passing attack is more diversified, as Mrkvicka (55-747-6) and tight end Schmitt (45-461-9) are big threats as well. Mrkvicka's 53-yard TD catch with 5:39 left helped beat UW-La Crosse in the playoffs, and his 94-yard kickoff return accounted for all of the scoring against Mary Hardin-Baylor. The Warhawks must contend with five defensive backs in Mount Union's base scheme, but they should be able to spread the field and attack on the perimeter, deep and over the middle.
UW-Whitewater: LT Max Sakellaris, LG Brady Ramseier, C Brent Allen, RG Dan Anstett, RT Cal Schmidt
Mount Union: T Ryan Creachbaum, G Derek Blanchard, C Eric Safran, G Tim Reash, T Jason Lewis
The Warhawks are 285-308-256-286-271 (281.2 average weight) across a front line that has allowed just nine sacks all season. They're experienced, with senior Sakellaris and four juniors, and their left side starters are both all-Americans. Anstett is the only one who didn't start in the Stagg Bowl last year. The zone-blocking scheme is taught to these players from the day they arrive in Whitewater, and they'll want to execute to perfection on Saturday.
A quiet key to the nation's No. 1 offense (498.3 yards, 44.6 points per game) has been the Purple Raiders' offensive line. It runs 255-310-290-284-317 across the front (291.2 average), with tackle Jason Lewis an all-American. Any time an offense rushes for more than 300 yards per game, a key is the guys up front. And the big rushing days haven't come against nobodies, least of all last week's 378, 7.4-yard per carry day. I can't imagine Kehres could ask any more of these guys right now. Lewis, Safran and Blanchard started in Stagg Bowl XXXIII.
Advantage: Purple Raiders
UW-Whitewater: DE Ryan Ogrizovich, DT Ryan Kleppe, DT Alex Thompson, DE Brandon Benish
Mount Union: DE Justen Stickley, DT Nick Parr, DT Patrick McCullough, DE Sam Vucelich
Each defense has at least one star (Kleppe and Stickley) on the defensive line capable of disrupting the opposing offense at key moments. But they're also solid against the run. The Purple Raiders were No. 1 against the run this season, allowing 25.9 yards per game, and Whitewater was fifth at 53.9.
Vucelich, a fifth-year senior like Stickley, rushed the passer effectively last week, helping
Mount Union pressure St. John Fisher literally from both ends. Both Stickley and Vucelich have double-digit sacks this season.
Kleppe does a lot of his damage going straight ahead, especially when coming after the quarterback. At 6-0 and 290, Kleppe packs a mean initial punch and hustles even when the play is going away from him. He's often double-teamed to keep him off the QB, but with 13.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for losses, it hasn't always worked.
Parr and Vucelich were in on a lot of plays against the Cardinals. The depth of the group might give the Purple Raiders a slight edge.
Advantage: Purple Raiders
UW-Whitewater: OLB A.J. Raebel, MLB Tristan Borzick, OLB Robb Widuch
Mount Union: ILBs Matt Rees, Tony DeRiggi
Borzick, an Illinois State transfer, has solidified an already-good group of linebackers. Widuch started Stagg Bowl XXXIII in the middle, but now that's Borzick's spot while Widuch took his speed to the weak side. Berezowitz has called this the best group of linebackers he's ever coached. They all enter the game with at least 78 tackles, the top three totals on the team.
The Purple Raiders run a 4-2-5 scheme that doesn't necessarily draw attention to the linebackers, but Rees and DeRiggi are the Purple Raiders' leading and third-leading tacklers.
UW-Whitewater: CB Gabe Schultz, S Ben Farley, S Andy Murray, CB Matt Blaziewske
Mount Union: CB Ryan Fehl, SS Matt Kostelnik, FS Nick Barren, WS Anthony Ursetti, CB Jonah Wilson.
If Pierre Garcon is not 100%, this assignment will be much less difficult for the Warhawks defenders. But balls in the air might be a good thing for them. Their 29 interceptions are a big reason why the Warhawks were +19 in turnover margin. Farley has a team-best seven.
For Mount Union (22 INTs, plus-17 turnover ratio), 5-9, 170 CB Jonah Wilson will likely start out covering Derek Stanley. The 4-2-5 allows Mount Union extra flexibility by using two 'strong' safeties and a free. The safeties can play run support on early downs, then without substituting, the Purple Raiders can go right back to playing a nickel-like coverage.
Kostelnik is a whirlwind, a playmaker who has scored four touchdowns this season, blocked two punts, picked off five passes and broken up 10 more, has seven sacks and is the team's second-leading tackler.
UW-Whitewater: K Jeff Schebler, KR Neil Mrkvicka
Mount Union: K Mike Zimmerman, P Greg Micheli
Schebler, a freshman, has shown he can make kicks well-longer than 40 yards. Zimmerman's range doesn't extend quite that far, but he's been fairly reliable. The cover units need to be flawless, as each team has speedsters than can take a kick to the house. Micheli is also the Purple Raiders' backup quarterback, which could be key in a short-yardage situation where a fake might be possible. The Purple Raiders rarely take for granted an opportunity to change the game, and they have blocked nine kicks this season.
Both teams have them. The Warhawks want to avenge last year's Stagg Bowl loss while sending their coach out in style. Mount Union has been there, and has the psychological edge of knowing it can beat UW-Whitewater.
Justin Beaver's 2005 vs. Nate Kmic's 2006
The two short-but-stout running backs have had seasons to remember. Their yardage and TD stats entering the Stagg Bowl are pretty similar:
Beaver had 398 carries, 2,295 yards, 23 TDs and a 5.8 yards per carry average before his 30-carry, 125-yard Stagg Bowl gave him 2,420. Kmic has 311 carries, 2,291 yards, 26 TDs and a 7.2-yard average.
Here are their game-by-game breakdowns, with carries, yards and rushing TDs:
St. Norbert: DNP
St. Xavier: 13-110-2
UW-Eau Claire: 32-193-2
UW-Stevens Point: 34-212-2
UW-La Crosse: 49-273-3
UW-River Falls: 30-145-1
St. John's: 34-168-0
Mount Union: 30-125-1
Averett: 17-73-1 (receiving TD as well)
Ohio Northern: 24-204-3
Wilmington: 13-74-2 (receiving TD as well)
John Carroll 19-75-3
St. John Fisher: 42-371-3
UW-Whitewater: to come
Kmic rushed for 1,040 yards on 176 carries in last year's five
playoff games, including 173 and two TDs on 20 carries in last
year's Stagg Bowl. Beaver rushed for 857 yards and seven TDs in
five playoff games last season.
What's remarkable about Kmic's year is that the majority of the yards have come against the best competition. Beaver's '05 was similar, as neither ran up big yards against teams they were expected to blow out ' although both ended up blowing out some good teams.
In '05, Beaver missed a game but went over 200 three times and over 180 seven times. Kmic has gone over 200 five times and has been held under 100 five times, while Beaver never had less than 110. But Beaver got at least 24 carries in his last 12 games, while Kmic was used sparingly in the early going, carrying that often just once in the first five games. He's had 24 carries or fewer nine times.
Here's where the two rank among the all-time great rushing seasons, by total yards and with playoffs included (unlike the official NCAA records before 2002):
Ricky Gales, Simpson, 2,424 in 11 games in 1989
Justin Beaver, UW-Whitewater: 2,420 in 14 games in 2005
Dante Brown, Marietta: 2,385 in 10 games in 1996
Chuck Moore, Mount Union: 2,349 in 14 games in 2001
Dan Pugh, Mount Union: 2,300 in 14 games in 2002
Nate Kmic, Mount Union: 2,291 in 14 games in 2006
R.J. Bowers, Grove City: 2,283 in 10 games in 1998
Carey Bender, Coe: 2,243 in 10 games in 1994
Tony Sutton, Wooster: 2,240 in 12 games in 2004
Mark Robinson, St. John Fisher, 2,194 in 12 games in 2004
Stumping for Salem
Every now and again, folks begin to wonder 'why Salem, Va.?' Kehres, who has been more than just about any out-of-state resident, and Berezowitz, who went to Salem as part of the Division III coaches' committee before bringing his team twice, have no interest in seeing the Stagg Bowl in a new locale.
'Salem has been a tremendous place to hold this game,' Berezowitz said. 'The atmosphere is something special ' There's a feeling of 'hey, I played in a special bowl.' '
'The environment, atmosphere and conditions are excellent for our game,' Kehres said. 'When asked, I'm an advocate for keeping the game there. I don't imagine anyone could do any better. I'm a Salem fan. It's a great little city to visit.'
Although the weather in Salem is less ideal than, say, Florida, it does reflect the December weather in the states that have the largest Division III populations.
'I'm not worried about the cold,' Berezowitz said. 'It's colder up here (in Wisconsin) than it is there.'
Salem Stadium plans a switch to turf, but Berezowitz, whose home field is grass, doesn't have a problem with the big game being on grass.
'Whatever it is, we'll play in it,' he said. 'I've got to
take care of a field up here, so I understand what we all go
Quotes of the week
'It's never easy going against Mount Union. Larry Kehres has won 92% of his games, guys! I'd like to give him one loss before I'm done.' ' Berezowitz
'I do find myself coaching against him though.' ' Kehres, after sharing kind words about Berezowitz before his last game.
'That looks like it now, but knowing Larry ' Last year they started pulling out stuff they ran in 2002 and 2003. His repertoire for remembering offense is tremendous. If we plan on him just running, he'll go back and start throwing.' ' Berezowitz on Mount Union's 'run heavy' offense.
'Good teams should play good teams. I admire that they contacted me.' ' Kehres, after confirming a deal with St. John Fisher to play a home-and-home series on opening weekend 2008 and 2009.
'It's kind of like hit 'em or get hit. I'd rather be the one giving the blow.' ' Kmic, after his 371-yard game against Fisher.
"I think Woody'd be proud of us." Kehres on what one of his coaching idols, Ohio State great Woody Hayes, would have thought about the 378 yards of rushing against Fisher.
Season in review
Around the Nation is accepting brief suggestions from readers (and players, coaches and school-affiliated professionals) for our 2006 Year-in-Review, due out in January 2007. Use last year's review (linked at the top right-hand corner, posted Jan. 25, 26 and 27) as a guide for which categories we're looking to fill, or make up your own. ATN cannot promise public credit for your suggestions this year, and we may or may not use them.
But if you think Kean was the surprise team of '06 or Concordia-Moorhead was the biggest disappointment, let us know (contact information, as always, is below). We'd like to hear your games of the year, plays of the year, players, coaches and things, but most importantly, your off-the-beaten path nominations and suggestions. Things we haven't covered much or would have no way of knowing about are where you can help most.
Around the Nation is largely interactive, and since its inception has made reader feedback a part of the column. We keep a running board on Post Patterns (under general football) to discuss issues raised in the column, and we'll share feedback and answer questions there, as well as in the column occasionally. Send correspondence to email@example.com.
What the eyes can see
We are always looking for video of anything Division III football-related. That means we'd like to get our hands on documentaries, local cable broadcasts and re-airs, links to archived broadcasts and coaches' tapes. Arrangements can be made to not share coaches' footage or to pay fans for shipping and materials. Anyone with access to footage, please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Games against tough opponents are preferred.
For print, radio and Internet journalists
Keith McMillan is available, by appointment, on Thursdays and Fridays to talk Division III football. For more information, e-mail Keith.