Mount Union, Rowan and St. John’s in the regional finals? Say
it ain’t so.
Although they’ve done it this season in three different manners – near-perfection, just-enough-to-win and resilient road warriors – the Purple Raiders, Profs and Johnnies are back where they almost always are: The Division III quarterfinals.
We pencil Mount Union in through the quarters at the start of the season. Albion last eliminated the Purple Raiders in the quarterfinals on the way to the 1994 title. The last time they weren’t in a quarterfinal was 1991, which is also the last time Mount Union missed the playoffs altogether. Dayton (now I-AA), Mass.-Lowell (now disbanded, after a stint in Division II) and Glassboro State (now named Rowan) were each in the 16-team field that year.
The Profs and Johnnies have taken the roads less traveled to make the quarterfinals this season. The Profs, whose fans still refer to them as “Beasts of the East,” have won by double digits in only three of their nine wins, and were humbled Oct. 28 in an overtime loss at Montclair State. Rowan needed an overtime victory against Cortland State the following week, as well as the decisive 38-7 Friday night win against William Paterson, which beat Rowan in 2005, to clinch the NJAC title and automatic bid.
In the first round of the playoffs, the Profs trailed Hobart by a point before a field goal with 9 seconds left gave them a 20-18 home win. Last Saturday at Wilkes, a botched PAT had Rowan down 14-13 before the Colonels fumbled an exchange at their own 22 with 2:26 left. The Profs recovered and went on to win 21-14.
“For those who have followed us this year, this was par for the course,” coach Jay Accorsi told the press, including Today’s Sunbeam of Salem, N.J., after the Wilkes game. “We’ve played football like this all year long, making it all too exciting.”
The Profs, who benefited from two missed field goals each by Hobart and Wilkes, are both lucky and good. Even with top-notch Mike Orihel at quarterback, there have been offensive struggles. The defense, both powerful and opportunistic, has been their rock.
The Johnnies were rocked in a Week 11 loss to rival Bethel that pushed them to the brink of the playoff picture. The selection committee let them in, a week after they were ranked No. 3 in the nation, with a No. 7 seed in their bracket. But instead of letting a once-promising season go to waste, St. John’s has played like anything but a seventh seed, handling then-unbeaten Central in the first round and making one of the playoffs’ longest road trips to beat Whitworth convincingly, 21-3 in Spokane, Wash.
Saturday marked the Johnnies 37th postseason win under legendary coach John Gagliardi. (As a matter of fact, we do have to preface every mention of him with “legendary coach.”) This is the Johnnies’ 15th playoff appearance in the past 22 seasons.
The Johnnies, who have waited more than a year to atone for a turnover-plagued 34-7 loss to UW-Whitewater in the second round, finally get their rematch.
Best quarterfinals ever?
After the big three, no other team alive is making more than their second quarterfinal appearance since the playoffs expanded from 16 to 28 teams in 1999. The three other teams we’re most used to seeing in this spot -- Linfield, Bridgewater (Va.) and Trinity (Texas) -- didn’t even make this year’s 32-team field.
Quarterfinal appearances since 1999 (the automatic bid/expansion era):
Mount Union, eight (7-0 in quarterfinal games)
St. John’s, six (4-1)
Rowan, five (4-0)
Bridgewater, four (2-2)
Linfield, four (1-3)
Trinity, three (2-1)
Capital, two (0-1)
Delaware Valley, two (0-2)
Hardin-Simmons, two (1-1)
Ithaca, two (0-2)
Mary Hardin-Baylor, two (1-0)
Pacific Lutheran, two (1-1)
UW-Whitewater, two (1-0)
Wesley, two (1-0)
Widener, two (1-1)
Wittenberg, two (0-2)
Brockport State, one (0-1)
Carthage, one (0-1)
Central, one (0-1)
John Carroll, one (1-0)
Lycoming, one (0-1)
Montclair State, one (0-1)
Occidental, one (0-1)
Ohio Northern, one (0-1)
RPI, one (1-0)
Springfield, one (0-1)
St. John Fisher, one (0-0)
Wabash, one (0-1)
Washington & Jefferson, one (0-1)
Wheaton, one (0-1)
I don’t know if we’ve ever had a group of quarterfinals this good to be excited about. Not only could four competitive games on Saturday be very possible, but one can also see any of the eight teams left winning this week, if not in Salem.
The last time we could say that was, well, never. In every expanded-era season, there’s been one 25-point-or-more margin of victory in the quarterfinals. Although that is often Mount Union’s doing, there are the years, such as 2004, when the quarterfinal margins were 18, 29, 36 and 49. In fact, of the 28 expanded-era quarterfinal results (this is the eighth season of playoffs with the automatic bid system and more than 16 teams), 12 were decided by a touchdown (seven points) or less, while 13 were decided by 25 points or more. Just three results fell between.
The average margin of all quarterfinal games is 19.5 points, but I’d be surprised if we see more than one of those this weekend (In ’02, ’03 and ’05, by the way, three quarterfinal games each were decided by a TD or less).
Let’s take an in-depth look at all four games.
East: No. 4 Rowan at No. 3 St. John Fisher, Pittsford, N.Y., noon ET
Key storyline: Profs’ run defense vs. Cardinals’ running game
The conflict shouldn’t take too long to find in this one.
The Profs have been one of the nation’s best defenses all season. They allow 192 yards per game, and just 47 against the run.
The Cardinals rush for 240 yards per game, including 113 per from star running back Mark Robinson. Together with James Reile, St. John Fisher’s top two tailbacks have combined for more than 2,100 rushing yards.
Ranked ninth in total offense, the Cardinals score 40 points per game. Rowan allows 13.
Sure, St. John Fisher has a nice defense too. And they’re at home, after each team won a tight game last weekend on the road after winning at home in Round 1.
The big difference for the Cardinals in beating Springfield, which topped St. John Fisher 55-38 in the regular season? Pride quarterback Chris Sharpe was limited to 69 yards, including 28 the first time he ran. In the Oct. 21 game, Sharpe commanded the Springfield option attack and ran for 280 yards and seven TDs.
Coach Paul Vosburgh told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle that the Cardinals tackled better, and had three defensive starters play that hadn’t played in the first Springfield game.
Rowan’s key to winning? Being resilient. Some might call it lucky, but you have to be in the game to take advantage of lucky breaks. Last week, the Profs were nearly finished after their game-tying TD didn’t tie the game at all. The snap was imperfect and the holder’s two-point conversion pass fell incomplete.
Up 14-13, Wilkes fumbled the first-down exchange.
“I actually felt sorry for their center and quarterback, to have the game on the line with a chance to run out the clock and make a mistake like that,” Orihel told the Sunbeam. “Once again, the defense bailed us out. They came up huge like they have all year.”
That’s true. Two teams have gone over 20 points against Rowan, and both won. With a young, still-developing offense, the Profs defense takes the pressure off. Rowan has rarely scored more than three TDs in a game this season, but they haven’t had to.
Only two opponents have stayed within 20 points of Fisher – Springfield, of course, did it twice.
There are loads of other things to factor
Pick: The numbers say take St. John Fisher. But Rowan’s nearly dumbfounding knack for winning, even if they haven’t played all that well, is harder to ignore. Profs 23, Cardinals 21
West: No. 7 St. John’s at No. 1 UW-Whitewater, Whitewater, Wis., 1 p.m. ET
Key storyline: The Johnnies want to play better than they did in an eight-turnover, 34-7 loss in last year’s second round.
Make no mistake about it. St. John’s doesn’t think it’s 27 points worse than UW-Whitewater. And even though last year is a long time ago, that playoff loss is still on the Johnnies’ minds.
“They knocked us out last year,” quarterback Alex Kofoed told the (Spokane) Spokesman-Review after the Whitworth game. “We’ve got a little vendetta against them.”
“We’re ready for it,” running back Craig Luberts told Frank Rajkowski, the St. Cloud Times’ Johnnies beat writer. “We’re going down there to try and get some revenge.”
Whitewater was buoyed by star running back Justin Beaver’s return. His 227 yards helped the Warhawks edge UW-La Crosse in a rematch much tighter than the first meeting.
The Eagles’ familiarity with the Warhawks probably helped in the game plan. So can the Johnnies do the same thing, using last year’s tape? Were those eight fumbles – seven lost, plus one interception – more fluke than Whitewater’s doing? Will the Johnnies be cautious in their offensive game plan because of last season? Weather wasn’t the problem in that game, but it could be Saturday, especially because Whitewater is the last grass field in play this weekend. In fact, the Warhawks are the only quarterfinalist that plays home games on grass, which is what the Stagg Bowl is played on, instead of turf.
Pick: I wonder if the Johnnies have tapped out their talent by getting this far. They are no doubt deserving, twice beating undefeated teams on the road so far. They have the motivation to prove last year’s meeting wasn’t representative of Johnnie football. But the offensive dominance hasn’t been there (just over 18 points per game vs. past three opponents) against top teams. When you have to match scores with a multi-talented Whitewater offense, now complete with a healthy Justin Beaver, it would take a mammoth effort from the Johnnies D to pull the upset. UW-Whitewater 28, St. John’s 17
South: No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor at No. 1 Wesley, Dover, Del., noon ET
The history here also goes back to last season, when UMHB turnovers helped Wesley build a 30-14 lead in a 46-36 second-round win.
But Wesley’s maintained their explosive offense even though personnel at running back and receiver is different than the last time they played the Crusaders. Though neither Larry Beavers nor Marcus Lee graduated, they aren’t with the team. Michael Clarke, a 5-7, 160 senior, and Chris Schatz, a 6-3, 230-pound backup quarterback, have filled in at wideout.
Five Wolverines running backs get carries, and the top three average more than six yards per rush. Freshman tailback Aaron Jackson (1,055 yards) leads the way and 5-8, 202 Jeremy Robinson (13 TDs) finds the end zone. Senior Alpha Koroma started in the second-round win against Carnegie Mellon and scored on a 59-yard run.
Electric QB Chris Warrick (30 TDs, six INTs), powerful defensive lineman Bryan Robinson (27.5 tackles for losses, including 11.5 sacks) and defensive back Mario Harris are all back for the 12-0 Wolverines, who have only been tested once, in a 13-10 win at Salisbury on Oct. 28. That was also the last time Wesley was on the road.
But that might actually be where Mary Hardin-Baylor has an advantage. The Crusaders have done the long road trip already, in the season opener 1,500 miles from home at Christopher Newport, so they shouldn’t be fazed. But they have tested themselves more, with five games against playoff teams, including three in the regular season. It’s hard to look past the Cru’s 7-3 loss against UW-Whitewater Oct. 28 and not think UMHB is right there with the nation’s best if they play that well again. Wesley, in last season’s semifinals, lost 58-6 to Whitewater.
So before I wonder how the Crusaders offensive line will handle Robinson, for example, I know they already have experience adjusting to Whitewater’s Ryan Kleppe, who dominated the first quarter of the October game before the line began to double- and even triple-team him.
Both teams play on turf and are built for it, so they should be able to negate each other’s speed advantage. Mary Hardin-Baylor is fast to the ball on defense and tackled well against Whitewater.
Last week, UMHB led Washington and Jefferson 27-7 before the Presidents made it close (30-27) at the end.
The Cru rushes for 236 yards per game, and nearly has two 1,000-yard backs in starter Jarvis Thrasher and bruiser Freddie Rollins. But that doesn't begin to tell their ball-control story. They rushed for 381 yards against W&J, and tried just three passes. They've completed just five in the postseason, athough coach Pete Fredenburg acknowledges they must pass more the deeper they go in the playoffs.
The Crusaders are solid on special teams (55-yard FG last week, seven blocked kicks this year) as well.
Both teams were well over 400 yards of offense against each other last season, but with UMHB being more hit-or-miss on offense this year, they probably won’t want to get into another shootout. Beavers, the receiver who missed the year because of an academic issue, had four TDs against UMHB last season, including three of 50 yards or longer.
Still, Wesley coach Mike Drass told the Temple Daily Telegram that the Wolverines are a better team this year, but won’t surprise the Crusaders or anyone else like they did last postseason.
Pick: Here’s another game, like Rowan-St. John Fisher, where the numbers and home-field advantage point to one team, but the gut feeling goes toward the other. Wesley won at UMHB last year and is at home this year, but the Crusaders seem to have been built to handle these big games. The revenge factor doesn’t seem as strong as it does for St. John’s. It might be one of those games where we wonder how the Cru won, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they do.
UMHB 29, Wesley 28
North: No. 2 Capital at No. 1 Mount Union, Alliance, Ohio, noon ET
Key storyline: Like the last two quarterfinals mentioned, this is a rematch of a playoff game from last season. And while that was an epic, this season’s meeting was all Purple Raiders. These teams know each other all too well, and their coaches spent much of Tuesday’s teleconferences praising each other’s players.
“Rocky’s been on fire lately,” said Mount Union’s Larry Kehres of Capital quarterback Rocky Pentello. “He throws the ball so quickly, tight and on target. He’s hard to prepare for because it’s hard to get anyone to simulate him in practice.”
Saturday’s game will be Pentello’s sixth against the Purple Raiders. But Crusaders coach Jim Collins points out that Purple Raiders defensive end Justen Stickley “has been a thorn in our side every time.”
Collins thinks Mount Union being so solid on the lines is the foundation of their consistency. It might mean his defensive backs have to come up and make tackles, but he has one of the nation’s best safeties in Kyle Hausler.
Receiver Pierre Garcon “is as good as it gets” in Division III, says Collins, and running back Nate Kmic has done a good job of breaking tackles this season. Mount Union’s offense won’t be stopped, he said. Containing it is a reachable goal.
“We’ve either got to do a great job of defeating blockers or be great tacklers,” Collins said. “You’ve either got to get more people to (Kmic), or you have to be great tacklers.”
Kehres said the Purple Raiders tilted their coverages toward receiver Derick Alexander in the first meeting, and Mike Niedzwiecki (seven catches, 134 yards, TD) made them pay. Collins hopes that performance keeps either receiver from being double-teamed on Saturday.
He also said Pentello hits his hot reads too well for Mount Union to rely on blitzing to get pressure.
“You can’t over-blitz this quarterback,” Kehres said. “He’s too good.”
Each team has a X-factor, in Mount Union’s No. 2 quarterback Greg Micheli, a better runner than starter Mike Jorris, and Capital’s Charlie Smith, a senior running back who’s waited his turn. Smith’s hit his stride, rushing for 100 yards in three of his four starts.
The weather was a factor in the first game – “I think all four seasons hit in that last game we played,” Collins joked, although he was certain to say that his team was outplayed and the weather was no excuse. Still, Capital passes more often (366 runs, 402 passes this season) than Mount Union (502 runs, 275 passes).
Pick: “Mount Union seems like a team that doesn’t have any weaknesses,” Collins said. “Usually vs. most teams you can find some weaknesses to pinpoint and attack.”
Even Collins knows it’ll take pretty much a perfect effort to win. Mount Union 35, Capital 23.
Mount Union rematches in playoffs vs. OAC opponent
A prevailing thought in Ohio regarding the Purple Raiders is you have to beat them on the first try. Larry Kehres and staff don’t often fumble their second chance. In 1997, Mount Union beat John Carroll 42-14 in the regular season and 57-9 in the quarterfinals. Here’s how other teams who played the Purple Raiders twice fared:
1999: vs. Ohio Northern: Won 56-24 in regular season, 56-31 in quarterfinals
2000: vs. Ohio Northern: Won 48-24 in regular season, 59-28 in second round
2002: vs. John Carroll: Won 35-16 in regular season, 57-19 in semifinals
2005: vs. Capital: Won 42-24 in regular season, 34-31 in quarterfinals
2006: vs. Capital: Won 38-12 in regular season
Around the Nation thread
Keep an eye on that Post Patterns thread for tidbits and things that don’t fit anywhere else throughout the playoffs.
Season in review
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What the eyes can see
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For print, radio and Internet journalists
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The familiar faces are just that
Mount Union, Rowan and St. John’s in the regional finals? Say
it ain’t so.