But when the Purple Raiders' offensive machine finally sputtered in the most crucial of situations Saturday afternoon at the 2000 Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, their often overlooked defenders saved the day by shutting down St. John's on NCAA Division III football's main stage.
Junior Rodney Chenos booted a 20-yard field goal with one second remaining to give Mount Union a hair-raising 10-7 victory at Salem Stadium over a game group of Johnnies, who were held to a paltry eight yards in the decisive fourth quarter.
"I think over the years our defenders have been overshadowed by our offense because of the points we've scored," said coach Larry Kehres, who led the Purple Raiders to their fourth national title in five years and record fifth overall. "Those players and coaches on defense deserve more credit for what they do, and now they should get it.
"Because our defense won this game for us."
Mount Union held a stellar St. John's offense averaging nearly 400 yards and 40 points per contest to just 207 total yards, and picked off three passes while producing one clutch play after another all afternoon. And the Purple Raiders (14-0) needed every one of them, because the Johnnies (13-2) shocked the crowd and a national television audience by stuffing their offense time and time again.
The contest began in typical fashion, with Mount Union methodically marching 62 yards for a touchdown. Senior quarterback Gary Smeck floated a perfect pass to tight end Adam Irgang in the corner of the end zone for an 8-yard score, giving the Purple Raiders a 7-0 lead before four minutes had elapsed.
Almost immediately, visions of last week's 70-30 rout of Widener began forming in fans' minds.
"People probably thought they were going to get another 70 points," said St. John's coaching legend John Gagliardi. "We have a tendency to start off slow."
But the Johnnies regrouped in a hurry.
Undersized St. John's used speed and sure tackling to knock Mount Union's precision offense out of kilter. Smeck threw just his sixth interception of the year, bringing a promising drive to a halt, while the Purple Raiders went three-and-out an unheard of four times in the first half alone.
All doubts about the Johnnies were officially answered when Chris Moore scored from a yard out to tie the ballgame.
"Things didn't really hit me until halftime, when I looked up at the scoreboard and saw 7-7. That was something different," said Mount Union senior linebacker Matt LaVerde. "Then I knew we were in a dogfight. We had our defensive meetings at halftime, and we said they couldn't beat us if they didn't score."
And the Purple Raiders proceeded to pitch a second-half shutout.
Junior Alex Grinch and sophomore Mike Miller each picked off passes in Mount Union territory thrown by St. John's senior quarterback Tom Linnemann, who calls his own plays.
"I didn't know what the hell they were doing," Linnemann readily admitted. "They mixed up coverages and executed so well. They're a great defensive team, the best we've played."
Still the Purple Raiders themselves had to score to win, which certainly wasn't easy.
St. John's blocked a 35-yard field goal attempt by Chenos early in the fourth quarter to stay even and intercepted two more Smeck passes. But after yet another defensive stand, Mount Union finally found its offensive groove down the stretch.
Smeck hit his favorite target, senior wideout Adam Marino (8 catches, 88 yards), twice for double-digit gains to put his team in Johnnies territory. Then Chuck Moore took over.
Five straight runs by the junior from Mogadore moved the football to the St. John's 3, setting up Chenos' game-winning kick.
"We were just happy to get that final opportunity," said Moore, who earned the Most Outstanding Player award by rushing for 146 yards rushing on 32 carries. "Those were tough (rushing) yards, and St. John's did a great job of covering our receivers. But our defense kept us in it. We owe this win to our defense."
Indeed, no one was overlooking Mount Union `other unit' on Saturday.
"I'm so proud of everybody on defense, because we were all out there making plays," said a smiling LaVerde. "For us, this is like a storybook ending."