By Hank Kurz Jr. | Associated Press
SALEM, Va. -- Mount Union is back on top of Division III football.
Kevin Burke led two second-half touchdown drives and the Purple Raiders ended a three-year losing streak in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl with a 28-10 victory over St. Thomas of Minnesota on Friday night.
The victory gave Mount Union coach Larry Kehres his 11th national title in 16 appearances in the Stagg Bowl, all in the past 20 years. His record improved to a staggering 332-24-3 in 27 seasons.
Burke threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Chris Denton on fourth down late in the third quarter to give the Purple Raiders (15-0) a 21-10 lead, then directed a 14-play, 87-yard drive for the clinching score with 4:28 to play. The sophomore quarterback completed three third-down passes to keep the drive alive.
The Tommies (14-1), making their first appearance in the championship game, managed only 15 yards of offense in the third quarter against Mount Union's top-rated defense, and couldn't stop the Purple Raiders' top-ranked offense after closing to 14-10 on a field goal in the third quarter.
The Purple Raiders had lost three straight Stagg Bowls, and four of the last five, all against Wisconsin-Whitewater as the teams met at Salem Stadium in the season finale for seven straight seasons.
The losing streak also left the Purple Raiders' 25 seniors in danger of becoming the first class at Mount Union in 20 years to fail to win a national championship.
Burke, the game's most outstanding player, didn't let it happen. He finished 21 for 28 passing for 222 yards with the touchdown, ran 13 times for 28 yards and avoided the turnovers that often alter title games.
The Tommies, playing in the Eastern time zone for the first time since 1949, seemed poised to make it a game down to the wire until they got too close for comfort, and Burke and Co. took command.
Mount Union's offense, stymied for several series, came alive after St. Thomas closed to 14-10 on Paul Graupner's 38-yard field goal midway through the third quarter. The scoring play was set up by the game's first turnover, a fumble by punt returner Denton recovered by Zach Novaczyk at the 27.
The Purple Raiders took over at their 19 and went 81 yards in 12 plays. Burke hit Julius Moore for 12 yards on a third-and-four and Jasper Collins for eight yards on a third-and-12 from the St. Thomas 25.
Kehres opted to go for it on fourth-and-four, and Burke hit Denton in the left corner for the TD.
A leaping, fingertip interception by Isaiah Scott at the Purple Raiders' 13 ended the Tommies' attempt to answer, and Burke completed three passes on third down to keep the ensuing nearly 9-minute drive alive.
The third one, on third-and-6 from the St. Thomas 43, went to Collins, who juked Sean Hamlin after the short catch, turning it into a 38-yard gain. Two plays later, Simon's second 1-yard TD made it 28-10.
The Tommies struggled early, but used a trick play to get untracked, and on the scoreboard.
Facing fourth-and-10 from the Purple Raiders' 10, they lined up for a 27-yard field goal. The snap came to holder Dan Ferrazzo, the kicker went through the motions and then Ferrazzo jumped up and ran for the right pilon, diving for the touchdown to make it 14-7 just 1:29 into the second quarter.
The Tommies should have tied it later in the quarter when O'Connell hit Matt Misiewicz in the hands a few steps from the end zone, but the ball glanced off the big tight end's hands and the drive stalled.
The Purple Raiders took the opening kickoff and moved like a team intent on reclaiming its perch atop Division III football. From its own 18, Mount Union needed just seven plays, the biggest a 41-yard pass from Burke to Jasper Collins, to go ahead 7-0. They actually scored twice, too, because the officials said they needed to review Burke's 10-yard pass to Chris Denton to the 1, but didn't decide to do it until after Jake Simon ran it in. After a lengthy review, Simon ran it in again on the do-over.
Mount Union made it 14-0 after an exchange of punts. The Purple Raiders held again, and when Tommies' 6-foot-6 punter Garrett Maloney had to jump to catch a high snap, he was swarmed as he tried to punt. Charles Dieuseul blocked it, scooped it up at the 13 and rumbled in a pack of purple into the end zone.
It was Mount Union's fourth punt block, and third return for a TD, in the past three games.