By Andrew Lovell
|Tommy Secky and the Alfred offense will be tested by the Mount Union defense.|
As Alfred coach Dave Murray watched the final seconds tick off the clock in the Saxons' win over Cortland State, he allowed the magnitude of the victory to sink in.
For the second time in school history – the first came just one week earlier – Alfred had won an NCAA playoff game. For the first time in school history, the Saxons had advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals.
But the ecstasy and elation of the milestone win quickly wore off once Murray found out which team the Saxons would be facing.
"You know, it kind of hit me after the game on Saturday," Murray said. "And then I found out we were playing Mount Union, so it kind of vanished from our minds."
The prospect of facing the Purple Raiders usually does that to a team.
Mount Union's exploits in the realm of Division III college football are well-documented, but still staggering nonetheless.
The Purple Raiders are 70-2 over the last five seasons, with the two losses both coming to UW-Whitewater in the Stagg Bowl in 2007 and 2009.
They've won 10 of the past 17 national championships, including Stagg Bowl wins in 2005, 2006 and 2008. It's been 80 games since Mount Union's last loss to a team that wasn't UW-Whitewater – a 21-14 loss to Ohio Northern on Oct. 22, 2005.
And this season has been right on par for the Purple Raiders (12-0), who enter Saturday's game with a dominant defense (NCAA-best 6.3 points per game) and a dynamic offense, led by sophomore quarterback Neal Seaman, sophomore tailback Jeremy Murray and senior wide receiver Cecil Shorts.
Alfred's resume is considerably less gaudy. The Saxons have played in four NCAA playoff games, winning their first two in school history this season.
At 10-2, the Saxons have already tied a school record for wins despite having twice the amount of losses as all the rest of the remaining playoff teams combined. And Alfred's two losses this season came to Liberty League foes RPI and Rochester, two teams that combined to win 10 games this season.
So how can anyone in their right mind expect the Saxons to compete with the battle-tested Purple Raiders?
Simple, Murray says. Follow the same formula the Saxons used to defeat Cortland last weekend – control the line of scrimmage, dominate the running game, and win the field position and time of possession battles.
"I think that our ability to run the football effectively was the key in the [Cortland] game," Murray said. "We were certainly hoping to stop their outstanding run game and fortunately we were able to do that. And then on the flip side, being able to run the football [was key] because the conditions that were out there, the wind and the cold, made it very difficult to throw the ball.
"Winning the line of scrimmage comes down to the ability to run and we were able to do that effectively."
Alfred outrushed Cortland by a 225-70 margin and held a 33:35-26:25 advantage in time of possession. Three of Alfred's touchdown-scoring possessions started in Cortland territory.
Obviously Mount Union poses a considerably tougher challenge than Cortland did, but Murray said the mindset must stay the same.
"We know going in that the field position battle will be crucial," Murray said. "You just can't give a team like Mount Union a short field. Special teams will be huge."
Freshman tailback Austin Dwyer continued his dominance of the Saxons' top opponents with a 32-carry, 187-yard performance against Cortland. The 5-foot-8, 170-pound grinder piled up 168 yards, 162 yards and 273 yards on the ground against Springfield, St. John Fisher and Ithaca, respectively, in crucial Empire 8 games this season.
"For a freshman to step up in those situations and play as well as he did, it doesn't happen that often," Murray said. "And he's the first guy that will give credit for his success to the offensive line. He's that kind of kid. He's modest, he's humble, just tries to get it done, and fortunately for us, he's always leaning forward. He never seems to get tackled for a loss."
Alfred's offensive line, anchored by two all-Empire 8 first team seniors in left tackle Zach Morgan and center Jeff VanDewalker, has been solid all season, but will face its stiffest test against a Mount Union squad that allows an average of just 72.3 yards rushing per game.
"They've certainly set the bar very, very high, there's no question about that," Murray said. "We've been watching a lot of game film for a few days now and a couple things stand out. Obviously, number one, they have great players, and they have them everywhere. ... And the second thing is they're very, very well coached."
No one is going to question Mount Union head coach Larry Kehres' status as one of the all-time greats, but Murray's star is quickly rising. His 86 wins at Alfred already rank second all-time for a program that has had 26 head coaches and dates back to 1895. Murray, now in his 13th year as the Saxons' head coach, was unanimously selected as the Empire 8 coach of the year for a second consecutive season.
There's little question that this season has been Murray's finest coaching performance. After the Saxons stormed out to a 5-0 start to the season – a stretch that included key conference wins against Springfield and Hartwick – they inexplicably dropped two of their next three games to middling Liberty League teams.
"Coming off of last year where we got to the NCAAs ... I think every player's goal was to return to the NCAAs and have some success," Murray said. "Now when we did stumble in the middle of the season, there probably weren't, in all honesty, a whole lot of us that were thinking, 'Hey, we're going to be in the final eight playing Mount Union.' At that point we were just hoping to make it back to the NCAAs."
The Saxons could have folded. Instead, the team responded by running the table and clinching its second-consecutive Empire 8 title.
Alfred will now try to do what Empire 8 rivals Ithaca and St. John Fisher failed to do in recent years – upset Mount Union in the playoffs.
Ithaca held an early lead on the Purple Raiders before falling 42-18 in the first round of the 2007 field. St. John Fisher had a chance to take the lead early in the fourth quarter, but settled for a missed field goal and, ultimately, a 26-14 in the semifinals of the 2006 playoffs.
Murray said his squad must respect – but not fear – Mount Union to have a chance to win, something that's certainly easier said than done.
"We've got to go out and hopefully not get caught up in the aura of Mount Union," Murray said. "We've got to show up and play."