By JEFFREY ZUPANIC | Alliance Review
SALEM, Va. -- Finally, after three long years, the Division III national championship trophy has come back to Alliance.
That's a total of 1,456 days, but who's counting?
Probably the 25 young men who just played their final collegiate football game for Mount Union, that's who.
Mount Union defeated St. Thomas 28-10 in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl on Friday night to win its 11th title in the last 20 years. But it wasn't the previous championships that became the conversation pieces, it was the time that had elapsed between titles No. 10 and 11.
More specifically, the years, months and days that went without a ring for the seniors.
They walked off the field last year after a tough 13-10 loss to Wisconsin-Whitewater with one thing in mind. Get back to Salem and finish the job.
"It was a difficult three years to see the seniors experience loss in the final game," an emotional Mount Union head coach Larry Kehres said. "I felt for them. This group inspired me to do everything I could coaching to make sure we got every chance to win the championship this year."
There was no pointing fingers. No pouting. No hanging their heads.
Instead, they did what champions do. They earned it, starting during the four seasons: The off-season, preseason, regular season and postseason.
The early morning training sessions and spring practices paved the way for a dominating regular season. Talent and confidence won out in the playoffs and determination brought home the trophy.
Mount Union (15-0) started fast with a 14-0 lead in the first 12 minutes of the game after the offense engineered an impressive seven-play, 82-yard drive out of the gate. Quarterback Kevin Burke started hot by completing his first four passes, including a 41-yarder to Jasper Collins to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by senior Jake Simon.
Simon actually scored twice on the same drive. His touchdown was taken off the board by replay officials, but strangely they were looking at the play before Simon scored to determine where Chris Denton was down. The replay came after Mount Union had run the play, which Simon scored on, but no explanation was given for why the replay was allowed for the previous play.
It became a moot point when Simon scored on the play right after the replay confirmed Denton was tackled at the 1.
"Can't say I have ever scored twice on the same drive before," said Simon with a chuckle."
The 7-0 lead was the first time since 2008 that Mount Union scored first in the Stagg Bowl.
After several defensive stops, linebacker Charles Dieuseul took matters into his own hands with 3:31 left in the first quarter. The senior from Winter Haven, Fla., powered his way through the line and blocked the punt before scooping the ball up and carrying it, along with five Purple Raiders and a Tommie with him, into the end zone for his second career touchdown.
"I was going to score regardless, if I had to drag 20 people in there, I was going to get into the end zone," Dieuseul said. "My teammates know me well enough that they weren't going to stop me either."
It looked like St. Thomas wasn't going to stop Mount Union either in the early going.
The Purple Raiders gained 114 yards in the first quarter, despite having the ball for just 4 minutes and 50 seconds. On the other hand, the Tommies had just 57 yards while controlling the clock for more than 10 minutes.
"When they got us on our heels," Tommies coach Glenn Caruso said, "they were able to bring pressure and get home. There were times when we had a decent answer to it, and we moved the ball a little bit. But there were more times that we did not have a good enough answer to it."
The Tommies did try.
They made it 14-7 at the start of the second quarter on a fake field goal, where holder and wide receiver Dan Ferrazzo scored from 10 yards out. Suddenly a potential blowout turned into a game. Those were the only points in the period, however, but Kehres wasn't too upset with a seven-point lead at the half.
"We spent the entire quarter on our side of the 50, so to hold them to just the one score is pretty good " Kehres said on ESPN at the half.
Dieuseul said the mood in the locker room at the half was a calming one.
"There were some words said by coach Kehres and I said a few too, but we felt good about our chances," Dieuseul said.
St. Thomas (14-1) showed more resiliency in the third quarter and cut the margin to 14-10 after Paul Graupner drilled a 38-yard field goal with 6:27 on the clock.
Then Mount Union went to work on both sides of the ball. The offense, which had gone dormant during the second and third quarters, woke up with a clutch drive that pushed the margin to 21-10 after Burke found senior Chris Denton in the corner of the end zone. The 81 yards on the drive nearly doubled the team's yardage output during the second quarter and most of the third quarter.
"I do think, for sure, one of the pivotal points of the game was when we did get within those three points and then they came back and they answered and I think that's the mark of a championship team," said Caruso.
The defense stepped up on the next series and got an interception when senior Isaiah Scott made an incredible play to grab the ball while falling backwards.
"Isaiah has covered the other team's top receiver one-on-one all season and that's a tough assignment to ask of him," said Kehres. "He's responded for us with some big plays."
Perhaps one of his biggest ever.
After the interception, Burke and the offense went to work again. This time, it was a 14-play, 87-yard drive that chewed more than eight minutes off the clock. Burke found receivers left and right to convert three third downs on the drive and Simon had his second touchdown of the game with 4:28 left.
Simon finished with a career high 21 carries for 87 yards.
"I heard somebody say earlier that we were a running back by committee team," said Kehres. "How funny is it that the guy with the third-most carries last week (against Mary Hardin-Baylor) won the game and then had the most carries and two touchdowns in this game."
Those two touchdowns were merely the icing on the cake as Mount Union didn't need any points after Dieuseul's second-quarter touchdown.
The Tommies finished with 194 total yards, but managed just 35 yards in the second half against the nation's best defense. All-American safety Nick Driskill lead Mount Union with 11 tackles, while Scott and freshman linebacker Hank Spencer each had eight.
"It was a tough game. We had our up moments and our down moments. The pressure defense from St. Thomas does that," said Kehres. "We had some flashes of excellence that showed up at times and that pulled us through. Our defense was consistent throughout."
That consistency, which lacked at times during the last three years, was enough to put to bed the talk that the seniors couldn't win the big one.
Instead, they won the biggest game imaginable -- the last one of their careers.
Now the seniors can be grouped together with the other championship teams in Mount Union history. The 2012 team joins the ones from 1993, 1996-98, 2000-02, 2005-06 and 2008 as national champions.
"I feel our resume is good enough to put us alongside the best teams (in Mount Union history)," said Dieuseul. "We put a lot of pressure on ourselves, because we didn't want to be the ones that left without a national championship. I didn't want to have that hanging over my head."