After bending, Mount Union defense broke

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The Mount Union defense gave up 45 of the 52 UW-Whitewater points.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, 

By Adam Turer

SALEM -- For seven quarters, Mount Union’s defense was pushed to the brink. Starting with the second quarter of the quarterfinal win over Wesley and carrying into the semifinal win over North Central, Kevin Burke and the Mount Union offense did enough to bail out the Purple Raiders and will them to their ninth consecutive Stagg Bowl in Salem, Va. It took one possession and less than four minutes for Mount Union’s defense, which bent as far back as it could to preserve a perfect season to this point, to break.

UW-Whitewater marched down the field on its opening drive, capped by a touchdown pass from Matt Behrendt to Jake Kumerow for the opening touchdown. Behrendt was 4-for--4 on the opening drive, complemented by Jordan Ratliffe’s rushing. Behrendt was just getting warmed up.

Mount Union allowed 52 points, after allowing 99 in its previous two playoff games. This time, the offense could not overcome and contributed to the deficit with four turnovers. UW-Whitewater’s defense turned in a performance for the ages, holding Mount Union to a season-low 14 points. The Purple Raiders averaged 49 points per game entering the contest. The 52-14 final is Mount Union’s most lopsided loss since a 48-0 loss to Wittenberg in 1974.

“It’s a tough loss. An outstanding performance by Whitewater, really, in all phases of the game,” said head coach Vince Kehres. “They beat us tonight. Give all the credit to them.”

The Warhawks defense made Mount Union one-dimensional, holding the Purple Raiders to 32 yards rushing and keeping Burke contained in the pocket. After becoming the first Mount Union quarterback to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season, Burke was held to negative 10 yards on 12 carries. He rushed for one touchdown and was sacked four times.

“They’re just tough. They get after the ball,” said Burke of the Warhawks defense. “They have a phenomenal defensive line and that’s where it starts. They did a great job of taking away what we wanted to do.”

The 52-14 final score was not a blowout from the start. Mount Union caught a break when an errant snap went over Whitewater quarterback Matt Behrendt and was recovered by Alex Kocheff at Warhawks 5-yard-line, setting up Burke’s touchdown run. The Purple Raiders defense still had no answer for Behrendt, who tossed three first-half touchdowns as Whitewater opened up a 21-7 lead. Burke and the Purple Raiders put an important drive together to close out the first half, capped by B.J. Mitchell’s 11-yard touchdown run to make it a one-score game at halftime.

Mount Union received the second half kickoff and had a chance to tie the game. Mitchell fumbled on the second play of the possession. It was one of four Mount Union turnovers on the night. UW-Whitewater’s aggressive defense, led by senior linebackers Cole Klotz, Kyle Wismer, and Ryan Cortez, was relentless.

“They won the game. They played better than we did,” said Burke.

On the other side of the ball, the Purple Raiders had no answer for Behrendt and his suddenly explosive offense. Whitewater finished with a balanced 450 yards of offense, piling up 201 yards on the ground and 249 through the air. Jordan Ratliffe became the first back to rush for over 100 yards against Mount Union this season, totaling 147 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries. Behrendt proved to be the more dangerous dual threat quarterback on the night, rushing for 56 yards on six carries to go with his 249 yards and four touchdowns through the air.

“Their quarterback played an outstanding game. They tried to run the ball down our throats and at times they did and that really hurt us,” said Kocheff. “We knew they were going to run the ball, but we just didn’t execute.”

For Kocheff and the rest of Mount Union’s freshmen and sophomores, this was their first loss as college football players. The majority of the upperclassmen felt undefeated, as only senior defensive lineman Matt Fechko started the 2011 Stagg Bowl loss to UW-Whitewater.

“This is going to make our whole team better,” said Kocheff. “It hurts, but at the same time you’ve got to look at it as motivation to get better for next year. You can’t hang your head for a loss when you have so much to look forward to.”

Because they won 14 straight games with ten new starters on offense and several on defense, in addition to a new head coach, the Purple Raiders can still hold their heads high. The first year of the Vince Kehres era ended in Salem, and only eight senior starters graduate.

“I thought our team has overachieved,” said Kehres. “I just told them that in the locker room. I told them that I’m proud of them. We won a lot of games that we could have lost. I thought this was an overachieving team and for my first year being the head coach, I’m proud to say that’s my team.”

With leaders on both sides of the ball in Burke and Kocheff returning next season, expectations will again be high. Mount Union can take motivation from tonight’s champion. Last year, UW-Whitewater did not even qualify for the playoffs. That certainly motivated the Warhawks heading into 2013, and this loss will fuel the Purple Raiders heading into 2014.

“You learn so much more from a loss than you do from a win,” said Kehres. “We’ll study this videotape, learn from it, and use it as motivation.”

Burke’s personal streak of 44 unanswered games started and won, dating back to his senior year of high school, came to an end. The fierce competitor found no silver lining in defeat. When asked if it takes some of the sting away knowing that he still has one more chance to lead Mount Union back to a the national championship, Burke was brutally honest:

“No. It hurts now.”

Only one thing will heal that pain: a return trip to Salem in 2014, capped by Mount Union’s 12th national championship.