By Andrew Lovell
|Jasper Collins has emerged as a standout receiver
for Mount Union after biding his time on the
Photo by Dan Poel for d3photography.com
The names and faces have changed over the years, but the teams and jersey colors have remained the same.
Mount Union and UW-Whitewater – two elite programs synonymous with not just winning, but winning at record rates – will face off in Stagg Bowl XXXVIII Saturday, the sixth consecutive championship clash between the two titans.
The list of players to take the field in this annual battle for Division III supremacy reads like a who's-who list of some of the top college players of the decade. Quarterbacks such as Jeff Donovan and Greg Micheli, running backs like Nate Kmic and Justin Beaver, and wide receivers like Pierre Garcon, Cecil Shorts and Derek Stanley among many others.
But even the most die-hard fans of the two teams might need a game program come kickoff time in Salem this Saturday.
It's possible, if not likely, that both the Purple Raiders and Warhawks will start backup quarterbacks. Matt Piloto could get the start for an injured Neal Seaman on Mount Union's side, while Lee Brekke could make his fifth consecutive start – all in the playoffs – in place of Matt Blanchard for Whitewater.
Regardless of which two quarterbacks get the nods, all four signal callers are in the running for a distinguished career achievement – starting in their first Stagg Bowl.
But the two starting quarterbacks won't be the only first-timers. Unlike past seasons, where truly dominant Mount Union and Whitewater teams have taken the field with mostly seniors, this year's field will showcase juniors and sophomores, many of them at key positions.
Seaman and Brekke are both sophomores, as is Mount Union's leading rusher, tailback Jeremy Murray. Wide receiver Jasper Collins, whose 60 receptions and 824 yards trail only Shorts, is also a sophomore.
But the Purple Raiders' offense looks experienced compared to the team's defense. Only two of Mount Union's top eight tacklers this season are seniors. Four of that same group of eight are either freshmen or sophomores, a bit of a rarity when dealing with a program like Mount Union.
"We have some seniors ... just not as many as we usually have," Mount Union head coach Larry Kehres said matter-of-factly. "But they've really done a good job in terms of helping our young guys learn how to practice consistently well."
|Lee Brekke could get the Stagg Bowl at quarterback
for UW-Whitewater. No matter who starts, he'll be the fourth
Warhawk signal-caller in the six Stagg Bowls, following Justin
Jacobs, Danny Jones and Jeff Donovan.
Photo by Daryl Tessmann, d3photography.com
On Whitewater's side, Brekke, a sophomore, seems likely will continue to fill in for Blanchard, a junior. Standout tailback Levell Coppage is a junior, as are linebacker Greg Arnold (52.5 tackles, six sacks) and cornerback Jared Kiesow (38 tackles, two interceptions).
However, a quick comparison of last year's Stagg Bowl starting lineups compared to the Mount Union and Whitewater lineups from this year's semifinals games reveals that Whitewater has the edge in experience.
Mount Union returns only seven starters from last year's Stagg Bowl, including just three on offense – Shorts, junior fullback Wes Ryder and senior right guard Sam Guerrero (who started at right tackle in last year's Stagg Bowl).
Whitewater brings back nearly double that with 13 returning starters, including seven on offense and four of the five offensive line spots.
Whitewater head coach Lance Leipold estimated that 20 of his players on this season’s 52-man postseason roster had never made the trip to Salem. But Leipold said it is the responsibility of the experienced upperclassmen to prepare the newcomers for what lies ahead.
"When you talk about your senior leadership, it can go in a lot of different ways," Leipold said. "You talk about during your offseason in the weight room to conditioning to fall camp all the way through. And now this is another thing, where an older guy can tell a younger guy of what the routine is. ... Those are the things that kind of help lay the land, whereas if you're a team that hasn't gone or you have a group of guys that hasn't gone, the unknown is definitely there then."
The unknown may be there for individual players, but not for the two programs. Mount Union and Whitewater have combined to win 11 of the past 15 Stagg Bowls, so while players and, to a lesser degree coaches, have come and gone, the programs have withstood the test of time.
"We haven't changed a whole lot of on our end of what we've done," Leipold said. "I think for both schools, you tweak a few things I would imagine, but when you keep having success with what you're doing, you believe in your systems and you just try to execute them the best you can."
While Kehres' team is younger than its traditonally been, the veteran coach has leaned on a handful of key upperclassmen to help guide the new starters through their inevitable growing pains.
"The leader in terms of our O-line is Sam Guerrero," Kehres said. "He's played a couple different positions for us, he's played guard, he's played tackle and he's done that for a couple years based on other men being injured. He's kind of a quiet leader, not as recognized as some of the skill players, but he's been a critical part of the development of this team, from our perspective because he hasn't missed any games for three seasons."
Kehres couldn't have asked for a better duo of senior defenders in defensive end Lambert Budzinski and linebacker Sam Kershaw, who have anchored the Purple Raiders' stout defense this season.
Budzinski has 101 tackles, including 29 for a loss, and 17.5 sacks, which trails only Linfield's Eric Hedin's 21 sacks for most in the country.
"Thank goodness for Lambert because we were totally kind of young on our defensive line and inexperienced, but he's been a leader in helping those young guys practice properly," Kehres said. "He's a very disciplined player in carrying out his assignments. ... He's really been the ultimate in terms of leadership for our team and everything you want in one of your captains."
Kershaw, with 94 tackles, has been a steadying force not only for the rest of the linebacking corps, but for the defense as a whole. That's allowed players like sophomore linebacker Charles Dieuseul (72 tackles, nine sacks) and sophomore strong safety Nick Driskill (68 tackles, three sacks, five interceptions) to shine.
Kehres also singled out senior cornerback Chaz Jordan, senior tight end Kyle Miller and senior left tackle Kyle Reese as other important pieces of the puzzle.
Of course, when considering all of this it's important to keep in mind that at one time, players like Beaver, Kmic and Donovan were making their first appearances in the Stagg Bowl. Their names have since forever been etched in the history of the game.
Now, it's time for a new generation of players to leave their marks.