By Jeffrey Zupanic | Alliance Review
SALEM, Va. -- Stagg Bowl XL features a mixture of experience and youth.
Mount Union is old reliable with its eighth straight Stagg Bowl appearance. The Raiders have advanced to the Stagg Bowl 15 of the past 17 years and 16 in the last 20 seasons. St. Thomas comes to Salem playing in its first-ever Stagg Bowl.
Tommies head coach Glenn Caruso wouldn't want his first trip to the title game to be against anybody but Mount Union.
"They are the standard as far as I am concerned in Division III," Caruso said. "Nobody can match their consistency over the last 20 years. Until proven otherwise, they are the standard."
The Purple Raiders have raised the bar again in 2012.
They bring an explosive offense and electric defense to Division III's biggest party. They average almost 560 yards and 55 points per game, which includes scoring at least 48 in four playoff games after wins against Christopher Newport (72-14), Johns Hopkins (55-13), Widener (72-17) and Mary Hardin-Baylor (48-35). The semifinal win featured a 14-point fourth-quarter comeback that saw the Purple Raiders score three touchdowns in the final 3:42.
Mount Union (14-0) turned the ball over five times and had two other empty possessions due to bad snap on third down and a fake punt yet was still able to almost score 50 points. The defense was stellar from start to finish. All of the Mary Hardin-Baylor's points came off turnovers while the Crusaders gained just 110 of their 275 yards on the other 13 possessions.
"It was an exciting game and I am intrigued to see how the young men respond," said Mount Union head coach Larry Kehres. "We showed vulnerability, some weakness and also character."
Mount Union's offense has been on fire behind the progress of quarterback Kevin Burke. The sophomore is the top-rated passer in Division III by throwing for at least 265 yards in all four playoff games.
He's thrown 13 touchdowns -- 11 to Jasper Collins -- in the postseason and has 37 TD passes and 3,550 yards for the year.
"Kevin has emerged as a great leader," said Kehres. "His biggest improvement has come from his passing getting better during the season."
Burke has spread the wealth to receivers Collins (84 catches for 1,574 yards and 22 touchdowns), Chris Denton (62, 877, 5), Julius Moore (37, 547, 6) and Shannon Stewart (27, 371, 4). The running game features three backs -- T.J. Lattimore, Blair Skilliter and Jake Simon -- that can punish opposing defenses. Lattimore and Skilliter have quickness and speed while Simon is a bruising runner. Lattimore leads the team with 1,080 yards and 14 touchdowns. Skilliter has 631 yards and 13 touchdowns while Simon has 487 yards and nine touchdowns, including the game-winning 12-yard run against Mary Hardin-Baylor with five seconds left. Also adding to the ground game is Burke, who is second in yards, with 748 and nine touchdowns.
Defensively, the Purple Raiders allow just 8.9 points per contest and lead the nation in run defense, pass defense and total defense.
So what has impressed Caruso the most? He couldn't decide between the points and lack of points.
"That's a tough question because when you score 70 points in playoff games that's something special ... But, six shutouts in seven games (during the regular season) is incredible," said Caruso. "Their offense has always put up numbers under Kehres but you don't see six shutouts in seven games. That's got to be some kind of a record."
It is as Mount Union actually tied its own record with six straight shutouts. They also accomplished the feat in 2007.
St. Thomas is 14-0 for the first time ever with playoff wins against St. Norbert (48-17), Elmhurst (24-17), Hobart (47-7) and UW-Oshkosh (28-14). The Tommies are balanced with 242.6 rushing yards and 222.1 passing yards per contest while averaging a shade over 36 points.
"We are not the flashiest team you will ever see," said Caruso. "I truly believe that offensive balance drives your success and we have strive to have that. We are 51 percent run and 49 percent pass for the season. But we also can adapt to how the game plays out."
Against UW-Oshkosh in the national semifinal, the Tommies jumped out to a 21-0 lead and shortened the rest of the game.
"Oshkosh gave us a large lead and we just stuck with our running game," said Caruso. "Once we got the early lead we were not in any rush to pass the ball."
Sophomore quarterback Matt O'Connell has thrown for 2,655 yards with 22 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He's also the Tommies second leading rusher with 795 yards and five more touchdowns. The backfield gets younger as freshman Brenton Braddock has rushed for 1,125 yards and 16 touchdowns. O'Connell's top target is sophomore wide receiver Dan Ferrazzo with 54 catches for 788 yards and four touchdowns. Senior tight end Logan Marks leads the team with seven receiving touchdowns.
"I define being dynamic not by how far you can throw the ball or how fast you can run but how many different ways you win football games," said Caruso. "By that we are very dynamic because we have won games in a myriad of ways this season."
However, it's the defense that caught Kehres' eye.
The Tommies have 44 sacks, 19 interceptions and 16 forced fumbles this season. Junior linebacker Tremayne Williams has a team-best 56 tackles (10 for loss) with 4 sacks and 3 forced fumbles to lead the unit. Senior defensive lineman Ayo Idowu has 47.5 stops, 16 for loss with 5 sacks while senior Chinni Oji and sophomore Sean Hamlin each have a team-high four interceptions.
St. Thomas has held five opponents to less than 10 points this season.
"They are quick, like us," said Kehres. "They are very good tacklers. You can see on film their coaches put them into good position to succeed on defense. They have really good pass coverage and pursue to the ball well."