By Keith McMillan
ALLIANCE, Ohio — His team down to its last gasp, Mary Hardin-Baylor quarterback Josh Welch lofted a pass through a snowy sky into a crowd of purple and black jerseys during the final minute of Saturday's national semifinal at Mount Union Stadium.
Walter Sharp brought down with him not only the ball in the crowd for the game-winning touchdown, but the dreams of every Crusader since the program first kicked off in 1998.
With an improbable 17-point fourth quarter, Mary Hardin-Baylor handed Mount Union its first home loss in exactly five years, 38-35 in front of 2,945, and earned a spot in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl.
"It wasn't too technical a play," said Welch, a freshman making his third start in place of injured Andy Padron, of the 24-yard, fourth-and-12 TD pass. "I saw a white jersey coming out from the black and purple, whatever they wear, (and I threw it to him)."
The top-ranked Purple Raiders (12-1) appeared to take control of a back-and-forth game when Johnny Josef blocked a punt that Wade Kirk scooped up for a touchdown and a 35-21 lead with 3:10 to play in the third quarter.
|Kelvin Kirby, top, and the UMHB Crusaders are bound for Salem.
Audio highlight: UMHB's game-winning TD
But at the point when Mount Union usually starts to pull away from its opponents, the Crusaders and coach Pete Fredenburg stuck to their run-first, run-often game plan.
"It didn't rattle their team," said Purple Raiders coach Larry Kehres, whose team has won seven of the eight Stagg Bowls it's appeared in since 1993. "They responded … I think Pete's that kind of guy. If you've got a good running game, you use it."
Mary Hardin-Baylor (13-1) did, rushing for 308 yards on the day and on the entire 10-play drive that ended with a 24-yard Zach Newcomb field goal. The Crusaders got as far as the Mount Union 4-yard line on the drive, but took the three points and cut the margin to 35-24 with 10:28 to play.
A three-and-out set up an 11-play, 83-yard drive on which Mary Hardin-Baylor mixed in the pass effectively. Welch found Sharp for 24 yards on third-and-8 midway through that drive, and fourth-string running back Anthony Carter ran for 11 yards on third-and-9 and 25 yards on third-and-15. The last run, on a late option pitch from Welch, set up Carter's 5-yard TD run with 5:11 left.
But with an opportunity to go for two to make the score 35-32, Fredenburg sent out Newcomb for the PAT, and the Crusaders trailed by four.
"I am always real hesitant to go for two unless it's absolutely necessary, something we need to do to win," Fredenburg said.
But he admitted second-guessing himself, wondering on the sideline if he had made a mistake.
Fortunately, Mount Union went three-and-out again, and the Crusaders got the ball back 68 yards from the end zone with 3:16 left.
After driving to the Mount Union 19, Purple Raider Anthony Frate sacked Welch for a 5-yard loss to set up fourth-and-12.
Welch then tossed the game-winning pass into a crowd in the end zone. Sharp, a 6-2, 225-pound tight end, went up and snagged the ball with 48.9 seconds left. That set off a wild celebration on the visitors sideline, as headphones and purple rain jackets were tossed joyously.
Mount Union moved to the Crusaders' 45 needing just a field goal to tie. But Keith Zunker sacked Zac Bruney for a 13-yard loss with 5.7 seconds left to end the threat.
A Pool C team and No. 5 seed in the South bracket, Mary Hardin-Baylor will make its first appearance in Division III's national championship game in Salem, Va. The Crusaders will be facing another Stagg Bowl first-timer in Linfield, a winner over Rowan in Saturday's other semifinal.
While the Stagg Bowl will be just the 76th game in Mary Hardin-Baylor football history, which began in 1998, Mount Union's run as Division III's dynasty appears to be in question.
After losing last season's Stagg Bowl to St. John's, the Purple Raiders will go two straight years without winning the national championship for the first time since the 1994 and '95 seasons. The loss snapped a 39-game home win streak for the Purple Raiders, though they have still won 13 consecutive Ohio Athletic Conference titles and have been at least as far as the national semifinals in 10 seasons in a row.