December 15, 2007

Mount's reign washed out

More news about: Mount Union
All-America wide receiver Pierre Garcon was held to four catches for 30 yards in Mount Union's loss.
Photo by R.C. Workman for D3sports.com

By Keith McMillan
D3football.com

SALEM --
 As the rain fell at Stagg Bowl XXXV Saturday, the reign fell.

With a 164-4 record and eight national championships in nine Stagg Bowl appearances since the start of the 1996 season, and with a chance for their third three-peat in that span, Mount Union has firmly established itself as the standard by which other Division III teams are measured.

Toss in the 1993 championship, and the Purple Raiders (14-1) were questing for their 10th win in Salem.

Year after year, Mount Union is expected to win. It's almost a ho-hum end to the season when they do. Although coach Larry Kehres and their players say, win or lose, they don't take the Stagg Bowl experience for granted, and certainly don't assume that they will win, that attitude is very much present outside the program.

For those who forget that Mount Union builds its team much like other Division III programs do, with undersized but hard-working student-athletes, any loss comes as a shocker.

But those inside both the Mount Union and UW-Whitewater programs felt the teams had been evenly matched the past two Stagg Bowls, with Mount Union seizing the opportunities and pulling away in the second half. Saturday, it was the Warhawks who seized opportunities, finished drives and came up with the big plays, particularly a first-quarter goal-line stand.

“Statistically, they were close games,” Kehres said from the Purple Raiders' locker room after the game. “All three of them were similar, but we were the team this time that didn't take advantage of chances to score. With 212 yards in the first half, you'd like to have a touchdown there or some field goals.”

Instead, UW-Whitewater (14-1) built a 10-0 halftime lead — the first time Mount Union was scoreless at the half of a game in at least the past 17 seasons — and went ahead 17-0 on its first drive of the third quarter.

Mount Union responded by twice cutting the Warhawks' lead to three points, at 17-14 and 24-21.

Safety Matt Kostenik said he “thought the momentum swung back our way” at 17-14, following an eight-play, 19-yard drive with 3:53 left in the third quarter. Quarterback Greg Micheli echoed those thoughts, referring to then, and when Nate Kmic's 4-yard touchdown run, his third of the game, brought the game to 24-21 with 3:34 left.

“We knew we were in a good position, but you never think you are in a for-sure position," Micheli said.

Instead, Justin Beaver and Whitewater's offense put forth perhaps their best effort of the day, scoring once more with 1:33 left to provide the final 31-21 margin.

“[Whitewater] played the best game tonight,” Kehres said. “They definitely deserved to be champions.”

The Purple Raiders, who fumbled six times and lost three in the wet conditions, felt they let an opportunity get away, just as Whitewater felt after the past two Stagg Bowls.

“We played very well in spots,” Kehres said, “but we made a few too many mistakes. There were a couple bounces of the football that got away from us and cost us the victory.”

Micheli said the Warhawks did a great job disguising their defense so he couldn't get a good read on what he was looking at, although he was still 19-for-32 for 245 yards and a late interception.

Kehres credited Whitewater's play covering Pierre Garcon, who'd gone over 100 yards receiving and scored two TDs in each of the past two Stagg Bowls.

“They did a good job on Pierre, they rolled their coverages to him and played short with their corner with a safety over the top … We had to turn some other directions and look for plays from some of our other guys, and they made big plays.”

Mount Union outgained the Warhawks 445-410.

Kmic admitted the weather was a factor, but also acknowledged Whitewater's efforts to strip the ball.

In the end, though, the Purple Raiders accepted that they were outplayed.

Given that seven seniors started on offense and eight more started on defense, and a 16th senior starter was on special teams, and it was a class that had an opportunity to go down as perhaps the best in school history.

The loss hurts, but it hardly darkens the legacy of a senior class that won two championships, lost only three games and produced seven D3football.com All-Americans in 2007 alone. This season in particular was phenomenal, as Mount Union averaged a 54-5 win prior to the Stagg Bowl, and at one point posted seven shutouts in an eight-game stretch, with only a Heidelberg second-quarter field goal keeping it from being eight in a row.

Moved into the East bracket for the playoffs, the Purple Raiders dominated the best that region had to offer.

Still, it'll be hard for the Mount Union seniors to find solace in all they accomplished anytime soon, while Saturday's loss still stings.

“It'll be a long bus ride home,” safety Matt Kostelnik said.

Though the Purple Raiders uncharacteristically lost their cool a couple of times, they were generally as classy in defeat as they often are in victory.

“If you make football worthwhile,” Kehres said, “you have to use it for lessons. I think the challenge is 'Don't pout, don't mope.' Will it mean [the seniors] don't come back and see me? Can we maintain a great relationship even though we lost your last game?”

Though excitement ripples throughout the division each time Mount Union loses, those performances, and the emotions accompanying them, remind the rest of us that the Purple Raiders are human.

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@ Salem Stadium; Salem, Va.
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