Purple Raiders defense stays a step ahead

More news about: Mount Union
Charlie Dear and the Purple Raiders defense use a unique blend of speed and strength to frustrate opponents.
OhioSI.com photo

By Adam Turer

Run between the tackles. Toss a pitch or throw a screen to the outside. Cross the middle or throw it deep.

No matter what you try against Mount Union, chances are there will a Purple Raider or three there to snuff it out.

During this postseason run to a 23rd straight semifinal appearance, Mount Union has faced three first-time opponents who run three varying offensive schemes. The Purple Raiders were up to each challenge, winning by an average margin of 27.7 points.

The common thread that stymied opponents getting their first look at “The Machine” was the Purple Raiders’ team speed, especially on defense.

“Their team speed is as good as anything we’ve ever seen at our level. We’ve never seen a team that runs like that,” said Washington and Lee head coach Scott Abell. “We expected that we’d be going up against a big, Midwest team size-wise. The size wasn’t a difference in the game. The overall team speed was an adjustment for our guys.”

The Generals and their vaunted shotgun flexbone option attack averaged 38.3 points per game in the regular season. In a driving rainstorm in Alliance, they were able to muster 269 yards of offense, but failed to put up a single point.

In the second round, the Purple Raiders welcomed nearby Case Western Reserve for the first time (although Case Tech and Western Reserve each played Mount Union in the early half of the 20th century before merging). The Spartans boasted one of the nation’s most balanced offensive attacks, averaging nearly 200 yards on the ground and nearly 270 passing yards per game. They had a three-year starter at quarterback and had just posted 28 points against another of the nation’s stingiest defenses. Mount Union intercepted Rob Cuda three times and held CWRU to 16 points, its lowest output of the season by far.

“What made them tough for us is they play a lot of Cover 1, put a lot of people in the box and said, ‘If you can beat us on the outside, go ahead,’” said Spartans head coach Greg Debeljak, whose team averaged 42.1 points per game, all victories, entering the contest. “It’s a combination of they’re very well coached and we don’t run into the depth of athlete they have. They just have guys they put all over the field that are so fast.”

Debeljak was familiar with the Purple Raiders from his time as an assistant at John Carroll. Having former Mount Union quarterback Kevin Burke on the coaching staff also helped the Spartans in their preparation. But until you face Mount Union on the field, it’s hard to understand exactly what to expect.

Austin White's versatility makes it nearly impossible to create mismatches against Mount Union.
Photo by Dan Poel, ohiosi.com

“It took us a while to get used to their speed. You can talk about it, but you can’t learn it until you play against it,” said Debeljak. “By the time we learned, we’d thrown three interceptions.

“It wasn’t that we physically couldn’t hang with them. We didn’t get bullied by them, we just didn’t have the speed to keep up with them. We could play with these guys, but to really have a competitive game with them we just have to be faster at every level.”

In the quarterfinals, Frostburg State became the first team all season to score more than two offensive touchdowns against the Purple Raiders. Of course, by the time they got on the board, Mount Union had already opened up its third straight 21-0 lead of the postseason.

“Our young men wanted to feel them out. Mount Union wasn’t feeling anybody out; they were playing football and playing very good football,” said Frostburg State head coach DeLane Fitzgerald, whose team played 20 sophomores and six freshmen in the game. “There were some wide-eyed young men. We needed to get some stops and we didn’t do that.”

Quarterback Connor Cox found his groove in the second quarter and finished with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. Mount Union’s offense and special teams were virtually unstoppable and the game was never in doubt. The season-high 37 points allowed will only help the Purple Raiders as they march forward.

“Every game, after you watch it, there’s things you feel you can correct,” said Mount Union linebackers coach Jon Gonell. “Frostburg showed us some things that we needed to correct. They made some good plays.”

What Frostburg State, and every other Mount Union opponent in 2017, could not match was the Purple Raiders’ speed. Junior safety Austin White flies around the secondary but can also play up in the box. Linebacker Charlie Dear is a sideline-to-sideline menace. Cornerback Louis Berry is an All-American sprinter for Mount Union’s track team in the spring.

“On Saturday, the difference between the No. 15-ranked team in the nation and Mount Union is this: they were taller and longer at every position and ran better than us at almost every single position,” said Fitzgerald. “We have some kids who are strong and could match up in some categories.”

It’s that speed that separates the Purple Raiders from most of the rest of Division III. The players who were maybe an inch or two too short or a few pounds too light to earn those FCS or D-II scholarship offers often flourish at Mount Union.

“Speed gives us a huge advantage. Charlie Dear, Danny Robinson, they’re fast linebackers, maybe a bit undersized,” said Gonell, himself a former Mount Union linebacker. “Brian Groves, Austin White, Trevor Cox—our safeties have speed, they’ll fly up and hit you, they’re not scared.

“We’ll take undersized guys as long as they’re flying to the ball. A lot of times, you’ll have an offense schemed up and it’s about someone making a one-on-one tackle. Our guys with their speed will make that play the majority of the time.”

That speed is evident in all three phases. Holes that appear open can close up in the blink of an eye. A sure special teams tackle can all of a sudden turn into a return touchdown. A pursuit that might be on track in PAC or ODAC play will leave a defender grasping at shoelaces.

“Their team speed is really tremendous,” said Abell. “A couple of our runs early might go a lot further, but we miss an angle on a block because we didn’t take into account the speed of the safety coming up. Or our linebacker takes a normal pursuit angle which isn’t quite fast enough.”

The Purple Raiders will face their toughest test to date when they travel to Oshkosh to take on the Titans. Preparing for Washington and Lee’s triple option, Case Western Reserve’s empty sets, and Frostburg State’s ability to play smashmouth between the tackles or throw it deep have Mount Union defenders ready for the multiple personnel formations and shifts that UW-Oshkosh will use.

“Oshkosh does pretty much everything with their personnel and formations. They’re a combination of all three of these teams,” said Gonell. “Facing these three teams helps us prepare. They’re hard to simulate, but our scout team gives us a great look. They’re a big reason why we’ve been so good at holding these teams to certain yards and points.”

If Mount Union’s defense plays to form, those yards and points will be well below the Titans’ season averages.

Dec. 14: All times Eastern
at Mary Hardin-Baylor 24, Mount Union 16
@ Woodforest Bank Stadium; Shenandoah, Texas
Box Score Recap Photos
Dec. 8: All times Eastern
at Mary Hardin-Baylor 31, UW-Whitewater 14
Box Score Recap Photos
at Mount Union 28, Johns Hopkins 20
Video Box Score Recap Photos
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