By Pat Coleman
OSHKOSH, Wis. -- Mount Union gave up three huge plays in the first half and a pick-six on the first drive of the second half and UW-Oshkosh took back a two-point conversion back for a defensive score and had a field goal attempt lined up on the final play of the game ... and despite all that, the Purple Raiders still rallied from a 25-point third-quarter deficit and booked their ticket back to the Stagg Bowl with a 43-40 win in the national semifinals.
This will be the Purple Raiders' 20th trip to Salem in this, the 25th and final Stagg Bowl to be held in southwestern Virginia. Mount Union will face Mary Hardin-Baylor, which defeated Brockport 24-0 in the day's other national semifinal.
It was the largest deficit Mount Union has overcome to win a football game, and it gets the Purple Raiders (14-0) back in the Stagg Bowl after a one-year absence.
"We're up 35-10 and they proved why they're champions, came back," said Titans coach Pat Cerroni. "It's unfortunate, but when you get to this level, someone has to go home, and we're the one going home."
|Mount Union had a huge second half in rallying from a 25-point deficit.
Photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com
The Titans missed a short field goal attempt on their opening drive and Mount Union scored first, as Josh Petruccelli led a 10-play drive and finished with a 2-yard touchdown run to give the Purple Raiders a 7-0 lead. The Titans recovered quickly, however. Sam Mentkowski took a pass from Brett Kasper and scampered 72 yards down to the 26 late in the first quarter to break the drive open and Dylan Hecker took a direct snap on the first play of the second quarter and was untouched, running straight up the middle for a 12-yard touchdown to tie the game.
UW-Oshkosh (12-1) took the lead on its next possession. The defense forced D'Angelo Fulford short of the first-down marker at the Titans 14 on fourth down, and the Titans went long on their next snap, with Kasper hitting Mentkowski for an 86-yard touchdown pass to give UW-O a 14-7 lead. The Purple Raiders put together a methodical 18-play drive which ended with a 23-yard field goal by Alex Louthan to cut the deficit to 14-10, but Dom Todarello returned the ensuing kick 73 yards and Todarello was in the end zone three plays later on a nifty fade route from Kasper.
The Titan surge continued into the third quarter, as Cole Yoder picked off Fulford and returned the interception 42 yards for a touchdown to make the lead 28-10 and Mitch Gerhartz's first carry of the game on the next drive went for 43 yards and a touchdown to make the lead 35-10 with 9:46 left in the third quarter.
"We just had to keep playing," said Mount Union coach Vince Kehres. "There's a lot of game left. We felt like we could move the football on them. We just had to keep paying, get a couple of stops defensively. Our guys hung in there. They stayed poised and perservered."
That's when the Mount Union rally began. The Purple Raiders rolled up 20 unanswered points in the final six minutes of the third quarter. Fulford found Luke Herrington for a couple of key plays, including a 3-yard touchdown catch to end an eight-play drive. The Titans went three-and-out and Fulford led another scoring drive, taking the final play in himself on a 13-yard run through the defense. And then Oshkosh made a mistake, as Kasper fumbled the ball on the 13. Jawanza Evans-Morris scored two plays later to cut the lead to 35-30 with 1:43 left in the third, but Fulford's two-point conversion pass went through Morris' hands.
"Patience is a big word for us," Kehres said. "We felt like we could run the ball a little bit on them and we wanted to be patient with the running game even if we didn't have as much success as we hoped to early. We felt like those intermediate throws, the curls, the digs over the middle, would be there."
The Titans managed a 36-yard field goal by Turner Geisthardt to extend the lead back out to 38-30, and even though Petruccelli ended a 69-yard drive with a 1-yard TD run, Fulford fumbled the ball on the two-point conversion attempt and Titans linebacker Derrick Jennings Jr. ran it back for a defensive two-point conversion, giving the Titans a 40-36 lead.
"Poise was the bigest thing," Kehres said of Fulford. "That's tough on a quarterback when you thrown an intereption and the whole sideline is kind of down. He showed tremedous poise to bounce back. He has a lot of confidence in himself, in the guys around him, and I think that showed as the game wore on."
However, Louis Berry picked off Kasper on the next drive, setting up the Purple Raiders on the 40, leading to an Evans-Morris touchdown with 5:41 left which gave the Purple Raiders their first lead since the first play of the second quarter. Kasper threw a second interception that allowed Mount Union to burn more time off the clock as the Purple Raiders pinned Oshkosh on its own 15 with 2:30 left.
From there, it seemed as if the Titans would have one last shot left in them, with the help of two amazing catches by Todarello. Kasper found him on the far sideline for 14 yards on a fourth-and-10, a play which was ruled incomplete on the field but overturned by replay, extending the Oshkosh drive out to its own 29. Kasper found Chad Redmer for a 10-yard catch to get into Purple Raider territory and stop the clock with nine seconds left. On the following play, Kasper rolled right and hit Todarello for a 20-yard catch on the sidelines, where he got his foot in with one second left.
Out of timeouts, the Titans rushed Geisthardt onto the field to attempt a 46-yard field goal that would have tied the game. His kick cleared the line but was low, except Mount Union had gotten a time out at the last second. Geisthardt's second attempt, however, was also low and no good, ending the game.
Fulford finshed 28-for-42 passing for 330 yards and a touchdown, along with the one interception. He ran for 46 yards and a score as well. Petruccelli picked up 132 yards and two scores on 27 carries.
Mentkowski finished with seven catches for 190 yards and the touchdown. Kasper was 17-for-31 passing for 297 yards and two touchdowns, to go along with the two interceptions.