|Nick Brish and the rest of the Mount Union defense made for a long night for the UMHB offense.
Photo by Steve Frommell, d3photography.com
By Adam Turer
For some programs, this title might be revenge or redemption. For Mount Union, it was an expectation.
The Purple Raiders appeared in their 20th Stagg Bowl, winning their 13th.
“We realize when we’re here, we have a chance to do something special and not every team can say that.,” said senior cornerback Lou Berry, whose class earned its second national championship in four years. “We really attack every day with that mindset that we have to win the last game of the season, and I feel like that’s the driving factor for us.”
Leading up to Stagg Bowl XLV, much of the conversation focused on the matchup between Mount Union’s offense and Mary Hardin-Baylor’s defense. The Purple Raiders defenders, who had uncharacteristically allowed 77 points over their previous two games, dominated on Friday night in a 12-0 shutout.
“I feel like we just always expect to move on to the next play, so whatever happened last week, happened last week,” said Berry, who came up with one of two Mount Union interceptions. “We knew we had a different offense and different scheme that we had to prepare for. We felt like if we were able to limit big plays, we’d put ourselves in a position to win the game.”
Not only did the Purple Raiders not allow any big plays; they hardly allowed any plays at all. Mount Union gave up just 144 total yards of offense while pitching its second shutout of the playoffs. This was the first Stagg Bowl shutout since 1982 and only the second time Mary Hardin-Baylor has been shutout in program history.
Winning his second national championship as a head coach was special for Kehres, a lifelong Purple Raider who made his first trip to Salem as a high school senior. It was made even more memorable by his defense’s performance. The former Mount Union defensive lineman and defensive coordinator returned to coordinating the defense in addition to his head coaching duties this season.
“It’s very rewarding. It’s a great feeling. Our group was confident. We saw what Mary Hardin-Baylor did on film, we knew we could get back to playing some of our base defense,” said Kehres. “There wasn’t going to be a lot of special stuff in the game plan. That gave them a lot of confidence and they played that way and did a great job.”
There were weaknesses exposed in the second quarter of the quarterfinal win over Frostburg State. Those vulnerabilities carried over through two-and-a-half quarters of the semifinal victory over UW-Oshkosh. But after the Purple Raiders trailed 35-10 to the Titans last Saturday, pride took control. Mount Union’s defense dug deep and turned in its five most impressive quarters of the season.
“We have outstanding defensive linemen that made it a little bit easier on me because they were putting so much pressure on,” said Nick Brish, who led the way with 10 tackles, including a sack for a safety in the fourth quarter to score the game’s final points. “It’s next man up. No matter what string you are, you’re expected to play at a high level. That’s been instilled since I was a freshman in 2015 with the team that won it then. I definitely now see what it means to prepare like a champion every day.”
Brish did not make his first start of the season until the playoff opener, and turned into a major contributor during this playoff run. He posted 29 tackles including 4.5 for a loss in the postseason.
“We preach next man up, 11-as-one,” said Kehres. “You’re a part of the unit, do your part, do your job, and that’s what those guys did today.”
With two senior starters sidelined, the underclassmen stepped up. The Purple Raiders were playing without two of their leaders on defense, linebacker Charlie Dear and safety Brian Groves. Reserves like Trey Williams, Mitch O’Hara, and Brish stepped up, exemplifying the depth that has long separated Mount Union from the rest of Division III. Brish was named the Most Outstanding Player of Stagg Bowl XLV.
It wasn’t just defense that carried the day for the Purple Raiders. Special teams played a huge role. Punter Adam Snyder was the unsung hero, pinning the Crusaders deep, and drawing a crucial running into the punter penalty that ultimately negated a Bryce Wilkerson touchdown return. He punted six times, averaging 40.7 yards per punt and landed three inside the 20-yard-line. Mary Hardin-Baylor started two of its final three drives of the game inside its own five.
“He came through big time. Sometimes, early in the season, he only gets one punt in a game. The last couple years in the playoffs, he’s really punted well and swung some field position for us,” said Kehres of his junior punter. “One, the wind’s blowing 15-20 miles an hour in your face, then you’ve got [Wilkerson] back there as the returner, that’s challenging. He did a great job for us today.”
The Purple Raiders shut down the Cru’s playmakers. Wilkerson was held to one catch for 12 yards and one carry for no gain. T.J. Josey carried the ball one time for one yard, but then missed the remainder of the game with what head coach Pete Fredenburg described as a rib injury. Mary Hardin-Baylor’s quarterbacks were sacked eight times.
“When you have Bryce Wilkerson out there, that’s somebody who can hit a home run on any play of the game,” said Berry. “We really wanted to focus on keeping him contained and bottled up. I think our head coach did a great job with the game plan, and we went out and executed it.”
Mary Hardin-Baylor’s defense lived up to its reputation, holding Mount Union’s offense to 10 points and forcing two turnovers. Both were interceptions by freshman Jefferson Fritz. The Cru held Mount Union to 229 total yards of offense.
“We did what we’ve done all year and you can’t do much more than that,” said senior defensive lineman Brazos Fuller. “For one, we have great players. I love my teammates. We have great coaches and we practiced well all week. We played very well.”
As well as the defending champions played, the Purple Raiders were just slightly a step ahead on this frigid and windy night in Salem. In the end, it was the mentality shared by the defense and the entire Purple Raiders roster that led them to national championship No. 13.
“The first thing that stood out was the history and the type of program that this is. When you come in with that type of preparation every day, even when you don’t want to whether it’s a 6:00 a.m. or late practice, we come in with the same mindset every day that we want to be great,” said Brish. “When you have as many as 150-200 guys on the team with that type of mindset, there can’t be anything that can really stop you, except for yourself.”
In Stagg Bowl XLV, it was Mount Union’s defense that did the stopping. It was a fitting finish to the Purple Raiders reign in Salem.