By Keith McMillan
ALLIANCE, Ohio — On a day when Mount Union's high-powered offense sputtered, its defense scored two touchdowns and the Purple Raiders held off a game Johns Hopkins squad to punch a ticket to their 21st Stagg Bowl, and first in Shenandoah, Texas, with a 28-20 semifinal win.
Cornerback Gabe Brown, just five plays after he was tagged for pass interference, intercepted a throw that David Tammaro couldn't quite hurl out of bounds, and took the pick 76 yards down the sideline for a 28-13 lead. Johns Hopkins had been driving with a chance to tie.
"I just heard screams and I blacked out, honestly," Brown said, recalling how he felt after the ball hit his hands. "Once I got to the end zone, I was like, 'I'm here already?' "
Cornerback Louis Berry and defensive end Andrew Roesch had hit Tammaro as he let go of the ball. Brown hauled in the pass like a basketball rebound and scored the Purple Raiders' clinching touchdown. Brown's score went alongside a 90-yard first-half tipped-ball interception return touchdown from safety Trevor Cox, and helped make up for a four-turnover day from Mount Union quarterback D'Angelo Fulford.
|Trevor Cox runs up the sidelines to finish off his pick-six of Johns Hopkins.
Photo by Dan Poel, Ohiosi.com
Johns Hopkins backup quarterback Nick Leongas led a 48-second touchdown drive after Tammaro aggravated an injury during Brown's touchdown. But Mount Union's Luke Herrington recovered an onside kick with 1:56 left, and Mount Union ran out the clock.
"Having a defense like we have, it helps us because they can score whenever, and we can score whenever also," said running back Josh Petrucelli, who led the Purple Raiders with 28 carries for 110 yards, many of them out of a direct-snap package that sent Fulford to the sidelines.
Wide receiver Justin Hill scored both of the Purple Raiders' offensive touchdowns, the first on a blown coverage on the opening drive, and the other to cap a 5-for-5 passing drive from Fulford in the third quarter. But it was the ability of the defense to score, and come up with stops in short-yardage situations, that stood out.
"It's awesome," Hill said. "I don't really want to say I rely on our defense, but I'm not scared for our defense on fourth and 1 or third and 5 or third and 3. I know our defense is most likely going to stop them."
Two fourth-down stops loomed large for Johns Hopkins, but Blue Jays coach Jim Margraff said going for it fit the personality his team had exhibited all season, and fit the mentality they needed to have to win at Mount Union, which rarely loses, much less on its home field.
"When I look at the missed opportunities, and I'll look at our coaching decisions too," Margraff said " ... we're not a field goal team. We're going to try to score touchdowns."
Credit went to the Purple Raiders, who allowed 367 yards to the Blue Jays but had three red-zone stops, six sacks, the two interception return touchdowns and the success in short yardage.
"They're a great defense ... when they know what you're doing, they're a tough team to compete against," Margraff said.
Johns Hopkins had made it a one-score game early in the fourth quarter when Tammaro beat a Purple Raiders blitz on fourth-and-7, finding tight end Emmett Turner for 8 yards. Running back Stuart Walters scored one play later, and the Blue Jays completed a two-point conversion pass to Luke McFadden in the end zone, but were called for pass interference. After the penalty, they kicked to trim Mount Union's lead to 21-13.
Johns Hopkins essentially played the Purple Raiders to a statistical draw in the first half, but went into the locker room down 14-6 because of some big plays.
Johns Hopkins had a fourth and 1 Walters run from the 12 stuffed. Later, on another fourth down, Tammaro threw high and behind McFadden, and the ball skipped off his hands and into those of Cox, who glided 90 yards to the end zone for a 14-0 Mount Union lead.
Instead of folding, the Blue Jays returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown, but a questionable penalty deep downfield took the touchdown off the board. Johns Hopkins went backwards, and missed a field goal attempt.
The Purple Raiders took over, again at a moment in which the Blue Jays could have folded. Instead, Fulford was stripped from behind, and freshman Robert Fletcher scooped and scored, allowing Johns Hopkins to go into the half trailing by eight.
Fulford finished 12-of-23 passing for 210 yards, two touchdowns, three interceptions and the fumble. But he also ran six times for 51 yards, a 10.8 average. His counterpart, Tammaro, was 27 of 40 for 250 yards. The junior passer injured his ankle during the RPI quarterfinal and had not practiced this week.
Though it took the Blue Jays' best shot, Mount Union is again headed to the national championship game. At the time of the postgame news conference, Mount Union didn't know, and said it didn't care, whether it played UW-Whitewater or Mary Hardin-Baylor.
"No matter who wins that other game, it's going to be a team that has some playoff experience, and a lot of great football players and coaches," Mount Union coach Vince Kehres said. "I told our team this was a great win today, but it's not the hardest game. The hardest game to win is what's looming."