November 27, 2013

The rare Ohio showdown

More news about: Mount Union | Wittenberg
Spencer Leno considered purple, but ended up in red.
Wittenberg athletics photo

By Brian Lester
D3sports.com

When Spencer Leno was looking at his options to play college football, Mount Union was on his list of potential places to continue his athletic career.

"Mount Union was in my top three," Leno said. "I didn't grow up too far from Alliance and knew a lot about the school. I definitely considered going there."

But decisions are not made quickly by an athlete, and after a visit to Wittenberg, Leno knew the school was the right fit for him.

"I went on a couple visits and just fell in love with the place," said Leno, a star linebacker for the Tigers. "I liked the team and the coaching staff and they were looking for linebackers. It felt like a good fit.

Reed Florence is the starting quarterback for the Tigers and he said he never considered Mount Union. A couple of Division II schools did offer him an opportunity to be a preferred walk-on, but he chose to play for Wittenberg instead.

Still, even though the Purple Raiders weren't on his radar, everyone in Division III is aware of the reputation Mount Union has in the small-college football world.

"They have a great football program. They have great playmakers on both sides of the ball and they have a great tradition.

But the stories of what might have been are irrelevant at this point. Leno and Florence have become standout players at Wittenberg and have the No. 12 Tigers poised for a run at the national championship.

But if that run is to continue, No. 12 Wittenberg will have to get past No. 1 Mount Union on Saturday afternoon in a matchup of the two winningest programs in NCAA Division III history.

Although Mount Union has won 26 consecutive games and is the defending national champion, first-year head coach Vince Kehres does not expect anything to come easy against the Tigers.

The winner moves one step closer to Salem and a shot at a championship. The other will begin making plans for the offseason and the 2014 campaign.

"Wittenberg is a very successful, veteran team with talented players," Kehres said. "They can do a lot of different things very well. We will have to play well to be successful."

What is interesting about Mount Union and Wittenberg is that despite combining for more than 1,450 wins --- the Purple Raiders have 725 wins and the Tigers have 727 --- and despite being two of the most dominant teams in the state, the programs have only faced each other 28 times.

Wittenberg leads the series 18-10 but Mount Union has won seven of the last eight, including the 2001 NCAA quarterfinal battle by a score of 49-21 in Alliance.

No one would commit to a reason why the former Ohio Athletic Conference foes haven't met more regularly during the season: Wittenberg played Division I FCS non-scholarship Butler as its only non-conference opponent this season, while Mount Union played Franklin. One thing is for sure, the Tigers aren't going to allow themselves to be intimidated by the challenge and lose the game mentally before they even step on the field physically.

"Obviously, Mount Union is a very well-respected program and they have had a lot of success. It's going to take a great effort on our part to win it. But we are going to prepare the same way we have all year. It's not bigger than any other game. We have to go out with the mindset that we will be successful."

Florence echoed those thoughts.

"We aren't going to change much at this point," Florence said. "We will play the game the same way we have played it all year. We are treating this like any other game. Mount Union is a great team, the best in Division III, but we have to be ready to play our best and believe in each other."

Spencer Wilkinson caught three touchdown passes for Mount Union in the playoff opener vs. Washington and Jefferson.
Photo by Dan Poel for d3photography.com

Belief can be tough to generate when one thinks about the challenges Mount Union presents. The 11-time national champions and winners of 22 consecutive OAC championships feature an explosive offense and a defense that can be downright unforgiving at times.

Kevin Burke has thrown for 2,745 yards and 35 touchdowns while only getting picked off six times. Bradly Mitchell has rushed for 949 yards and six scores and Jack Nicholls has made 59 catches for 903 yards and nine touchdowns. Four other receivers have caught at least five touchdown passes, including Luc Meacham, who has made 10 touchdown grabs. Sherman Wilkinson had a breakout game for the Purple Raiders last week, adding a deep threat that Mount Union has not had as much this season.

The Purple Raiders are averaging 539 yards per game and the defense is giving up 232.7 yards per game. Tom Lally leads the defense with 64 tackles and nine sacks.

Alex Kocheff has racked up 63 tackles and four sacks. He has also recovered four fumbles.

In their playoff opener, the Purple Raiders (11-0) took down Washington & Jefferson 34-20. Kehres was pleased with the effort.

"On offense, I thought we he hit some big plays early to get off to a good start, then later when the weather turned, we were able to run the ball effectively to control the clock," Kehres said.  "On defense, we were able to limit them from running the football.”

Wittenberg has quite a bit of momentum heading into this game. The Tigers have rattled off 10 consecutive wins after a season-opening loss to Butler, their latest victory a 59-17 drubbing of Lebanon Valley where the Tigers scored on nine of 10 possessions en route to the convincing win.

Leno said the success of the Tigers (10-1) is a credit to the work of the team in the offseason, particularly the seniors.

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