December 16, 2011

Mount Union feels the heat

More news about: Mount Union | UW-Whitewater
Loussaint Minett knocked the ball out of Matt Piloto's hands, which the Warhawks recovered on the 1-yard line. On the next play, UW-Whitewater scored to take a 10-0 lead.
Photo by Ryan Tipps, D3sports.com

By Ryan Tipps
D3sports.com

SALEM, Va. -- During a night of intermittent rain that may have dampened the game’s momentum but not its spirit, Mount Union’s chances for an 11th Stagg Bowl victory didn’t slip away until the team’s final drive with barely a minute left.

But while the late-game turnover on downs sealed the Purple Raiders’ fate in the 13-10 loss, the game’s defining moment came earlier, within just a few feet of the goal line. Midway through the third quarter, UMU quarterback Matt Piloto was swallowed by a horde of UW-Whitewater defenders, popping the ball from his hands and giving the Warhawks prime real estate at the 1-yard line.

It became the only touchdown the Purple Raiders would give up all day, and it came on the shortest of fields.

The Whitewater defense “forced us into mistakes. And good defenses do that,” Piloto said. “To be a better offense, we need to eliminate those mistakes and take advantage of the opportunities we have.”

Building up to Stagg Bowl XXXIX, a large focus was on both teams’ defenses, especially as Mount Union battled injury and other difficulties with its offense. UMU ranked second statistically in the nation in defense, giving up just 203 yards per game. Under the lights in Salem Stadium, they gave up about their average: 210.

Despite giving up yards to the Warhawks during the first drive, Mount shut them down with a red-zone interception by Chaz Jordan. The pattern held most of the game, with the Purple Raiders snuffing their opponents’ efforts and squeezing a lot out of the game. They even brought in an extra defensive lineman and pulled a cornerback to stifle UW-W running back Levell Coppage, the D3football.com Offensive Player of the Year. Overall though, it wasn’t enough.

“We played well defensively,” said Nick Driskill, the D3football.com Defensive Player of the Year. “We could’ve made some plays here and there that could’ve changed the game, but you can’t blame any one side of the ball. “

Coach Larry Kehres credited the speed and smarts of both defenses, which made this the lowest-scoring Stagg Bowl since Mount’s 10-7 win against St. John’s in 2000. The Purple Raiders defense kept the game close at the break and opened the door for halftime adjustments that the team is known for.

“We wanted to have a chance in the fourth quarter and not let the game get away from us,” Kehres said. “Certainly, we hadn’t done enough on offense. We had to do more.”

Mount was able to string together longer drives in the second half, helped in part because they were able to use the receiving corps better and lean more on rusher Jeremy Murray, who gained 59 yards on the day.

“We were able to spread the ball out to a few different receivers, get our running game going, kind of just balance our offense and keep them guessing as to what we were going to do,” said Piloto, who threw the Purple Raiders’ only touchdown late in the fourth to A.J. Claycomb.

But he also noted the heat he felt from the defensive line, including instances that led to the fumble inside the 5. He was also sacked three times for a loss of 26 yards.

“Any time a defensive line can get pressure on a quarterback and make him do things he’s not normally used to doing, make him alter his throwing motion with his feet, obviously it’s going to make it more difficult to move the ball,” said the junior, who like last year stepped up to fill the starting role after Neal Seaman was injured earlier in the year. Seaman did play one series, totaling 20 yards rushing and passing, before aggravating his injury.

This is the third year in a row Kehres and his team have weathered a loss on Division III’s biggest stage. He has enjoyed his own good years in the past, and he notes that amid everything, it’s irresponsible for a team to think of itself as untouchable.

“I would’ve hated that, to have our team think we were untouchable. That’s probably when you’re touchable,” the long-tenured coach said.

Having been on both ends of the scoreboard in Salem since 1993, Kehres has had opportunity to be celebratory and consolatory with his team when necessary.

On Friday, though, mired in disappointment, he said he was at a loss of what to tell his players.

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