|Photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com
By Keith McMillan
SALEM -- Recruits don't go to Mount Union for two-point semifinal losses. They go to win championships.
When those who have come before have been so efficient at championship-winning that Stagg Bowl appearances seem a foregone conclusion, it can create the impression to outsiders that it's easy. This is what Purple Raiders do, after all.
The 15-0 season that culminated Friday night with a 12-0 victory against Mary Hardin-Baylor in Stagg Bowl 45 was anything but easy. It had been borne out of 53 weeks of frustration since a 14-12 loss to UMHB in Belton last season. There were speed bumps along the way, and a 25-point second-half deficit that made even getting to Salem appear unlikely.
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The thing about winning so often, so easily, is that the losses are unexpected, and thoroughly painful. Thirteen wins would be a high-water mark for many Division III programs. For Mount Union, a two-loss, zero-Stagg Bowl season such as 2016 is utter disappointment.
Friday night, with a chance to exorcise its Crusaders demon, Mount Union brought into the game the nation's best scoring offense, at 53.3 points per. Against the defending champions, who brought in the nation's best defense, which had allowed 16 points in four playoff games, Mount Union scored one touchdown. Rushing yardage was so tough to come by that the Purple Raiders essentially abandoned handing the ball off when the Salem Stadium wind was at their backs.
Because of a gritty defensive effort -- eight sacks, 144 yards allowed -- the Purple Raiders pitched the first shutout in a Stagg Bowl since 1982, and won the lowest-scoring championship game ever. The sparse scoring wasn't because of rain, or snow, or Salem's whipping winds -- it was because nothing against UMHB came easily.
Then again, during Mount Union's rare season as chip-on-the-shoulder underdog, little did.
Down 35-10 in the third quarter of a semifinal at UW-Oshkosh, the Purple Raiders were more or less left for dead. Six days later, Mount Union was the last team left standing.
The week prior, coach Vince Kehres benched quarterback D'Angelo Fulford for a quarterfinal game against Frostburg State, stemming from legal issues that surfaced before the first-round win against Washington & Lee. Backup Luke Poorman came in and threw six touchdown passes. Poorman made it look easy, but it couldn't have been easy for teammates to see Fulford -- a player Kehres refers to as high-character, on and off the field -- sit following a traffic stop, arrest and missed court date. For a few weeks, eye-opening statistics and game-changing escapability weren't the topic of conversation around Fulford. Against UW-Oshkosh, he threw a deflating interception that was returned for a touchdown. But the sophomore quarterback pumped life back into the Purple Raiders' flagging championship hopes during a 33-5 rally from behind to beat the Titans, 43-40.
Overcoming Oshkosh wasn't easy, but even when they had, the Purple Raiders craved the difficult task of dethroning UHMB. Getting back to Salem had been Mount Union's goal. Getting back and beating the Cru made it sweeter. All-American center Cole Parrish told a story during game week about rewatching the 2016 loss at least 10 times. It was a source of motivation.
But so is not even making it to the Stagg Bowl at a place where wins are expected. Purple Raiders fans scoff when there is no championship to celebrate. Former players wonder privately about that particular team's moxie. The same thing that drew most of the players to Mount Union is what makes the task monumental: Nothing short of winning in Salem is good enough.
In Friday night's postgame news conference, AP reporter Hank Kurz asked if Mount Union championships come with a sense of relief. Nick Brish said he couldn't really call it a relief.
"I can," Kehres said, to a room full of laughter.
Eric Drennan, a reporter from Texas, later asked if coaching a team to the national championship entitled Kehres to the big Turkey leg at Christmas dinner.
"Not the way I look at it. I've got nine more to go," Kehres answered, referencing the 11 titles that his Hall-of-Fame father, Larry, coached Mount Union to.
Over more than a dozen trips to Salem, Larry Kehres would often point out how each experience was new to someone on the roster. Faces and roles would change for those who had been before; it was never old hat.
Brish, a hybrid defensive player who wasn't even a starter until Week 11, was named Stagg Bowl Most Outstanding Player on Friday night. He had 10 tackles, 2.5 for losses, 1.5 sacks and a safety. Teammates chanted "Brish, Brish, Brish" at midfield as the award was presented.
Sophomore wide receiver Justin Hill did a backflip at midfield as time ran out, and beamed throughout the news conference, enjoying his first national championship. Tight end Cole Moxie and wide receiver Demarco Haynes mimed a sword fight as they brought the Raiders' logo to life in an on-field postgame celebration. Purple Raiders players were smoking cigars at 2 a.m. in front of the Hotel Roanoke, not wanting the night to end.
Lest anyone think Mount Union championships are ho-hum, think again. The final Road to Salem might have been the Purple Raiders' most difficult, but exorcising a demon and living up to the championship pressure proved to be more gratifying than if it has been easy.