By JEFFREY ZUPANIC | The Alliance Review
No. 1 versus No. 2 for the right to play in the national championship game seems unorthodox, but that's what Mount Union and Mary Hardin-Baylor are faced with headed into their national semifinal clash at Mount Union Stadium today at 2 p.m.
The Purple Raiders and Crusaders garnered their respective rankings in the third week of the season when another team that wears purple -- UW-Whitewater -- suffered the first of three inexplicable losses this season. Neither has disappointed since they've occupied the top two spots in the polls.
One has been the immovable object and irresistible force all rolled into one while the other has been a juggernaut when it has the ball.
Mount Union is supplanted amongst the best in the country all over every meaningful statistic on both sides of the ball. They're first in every defensive category and slipped to second in pass efficiency after Widener's 64 attempt, 322-yard effort in a 72-17 loss in the quarterfinal last Saturday. They're first or second in total offense, scoring and passing efficiency, while putting up an incredible 199 points in three playoff games.
"We've come out fast and kept up that pace," said Mount Union head coach Larry Kehres, after the 72-14 first-round win against Christopher Newport.
That quote could also apply for the wins against Johns Hopkins (55-13) and Widener. All three games have been over at the half. That pattern might be altered a little bit against the Crusaders, who trail only Mount Union in scoring this season.
Mary Hardin-Baylor hasn't scored fewer than 32 points in any game (Mount Union's lowest point total is 33) and their highwater mark is 76 against Sul Ross State (Texas) on Sept. 29.
The Crusaders' strength is running the ball and they have a plethora of backs at their disposal. Six different players average almost 25 yards per game. Senior running back Darius Wilson leads the way with 841 yards and 10 touchdowns, but the most important ball-carrier might be quarterback LiDarral Bailey.
The senior ranks second to Mount Union's Kevin Burke in passing efficiency,throwing for 2,529 yards and 30 touchdowns against just three interceptions. He's also rushed for 937 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Bailey might be the most versatile quarterback the nation's best defense has faced since opening the season against UW-Oshkosh and Nate Wara in 2010 and 2011. Coincidently, Wara and the Titans are one of four teams still playing as they face St. Thomas (Minn.) in the other national semifinal.
The Purple Raiders were able to contain Wara in those contests by using a fundamental strategy, according to Kehres and senior All-American safety Nick Driskill.
"Speed, experience and excellent tacklers," said Kehres of his defense's success.
Driskill says the gameplan for handling mobile quarterbacks is making solid tackles.
"Once you get your hands on him, you have to bring him down," Driskill said. "Where QBs like that hurt you are when they are allowed to escape and make plays."
Driskill has seen his share of elusive quarterbacks this season. During the week he's faced with the task of trying to slow down Burke in practice and on the weekend's he's watched Burke drive opposing defense's crazy.
The sophomore signal-caller is coming off the best game in Mount Union history, in terms of yardage, when he accounted for 495 yards of total offense (380 passing and 115 rushing) to break the old mark of 456 set by Jim Ballard in 1993. Burke has been on fire in the postseason with 1,032 yards and 10 touchdowns in three games. Last week, Mount Union was perfect in the red zone.
"The (9-for-9) was mostly due to Kevin," said Kehres. "Most of the plays were zone-reads and he executed the right play."
Senior wide receiver Jasper Collins has been Burke's primary target. Collins has set three records in the postseason, including touchdown receptions in a game (5) against Johns Hopkins and nine TDs in three games.
While Collins and many other Purple Raiders have semifinal experience, neither Burke or Bailey have started a national semifinal contest, but the overall experience belongs to Mount Union. The Purple Raiders are playing in the semifinal for the 18th straight season, while the Crusaders are making their fourth time to the semifinal round.
Another glaring difference between the teams comes on the defensive side of the ball, at least statistically speaking. Mount Union has been dominant in allowing just 89 points for the season, while UMHB has given up points on occasion. They've allowed 25 to Wesley, 28 to Trinity (Texas), 28 to Sul Ross State, 31 to Texas Lutheran, 32 to Hardin-Simmons and 20 points to three different opponents, including last weekend's rematch from the regular season with Wesley.
Mount Union recorded six consecutive shutouts in the middle of the regular season and headed into the playoffs on a mission. At least in the mind of senior linebacker Charles Dieuseul, who was upset what he deemed "sluggish first-half starts in the final three regular-season games" and wanted to send a message in the postseason. It was received as Christopher Newport, Johns Hopkins and Widener combined for just 17 points before halftime.
"We want to come out fast and set the tone on the first series," said Dieuseul at the start of the playoffs. "We were a little flat on defense some of the first quarters to end the regular season and we can't have that any more."
That especially is the case on Saturday against the high-scoring Crusaders.