Mount Union, Wisconsin-Whitewater set for another Stagg Bowl showdown

By Jeffrey Zupanic | Alliance Review Published:

By Jeffrey Zupanic | The Review

SALEM, Va. -- Division III's national championship game features the prolific offense meeting the stingy defense and for the first time ever two former Stagg Bowl MVPs will face each other.

Mount Union and UW-Whitewater will clash in the Stagg Bowl for the eighth time in the last nine years Friday night in Salem, Va. The game is set for kickoff at 7 p.m. and will be televised live on ESPNU.

The Purple Raiders (14-0) are the nation's highest-scoring team and second-best in yards gained while converting almost 60 percent of their third downs. The offense is guided by the lone returning starter from last year's national championship team and that's how head coach Vince Kehres wants it.

"I would rather have one guy back and that be my quarterback and 10 new players than to have 10 guys back and a new quarterback," said Kehres. "The quarterback has a calming effect on a team and can slow down the game or speed it up for the rest of the team."

Burke, last year's Stagg Bowl MVP, has thrown for 3,514 yards and 44 touchdowns and took over the title of nation's No. 1 rated passer after his performance in the 41-40 semifinal win against North Central. The junior was 12-of-19 for 163 yards and threw the game-winning touchdown with 1:08 remaining.

"He's very elusive and keeps many plays alive. He's also a very confident young man," said UW-Whitewater head coach Lance Leipold. "He's a tremendous asset to their offense."

Burke's gotten help on the offensive side of the ball from freshman running back B.J. Mitchell, who has recorded eight 100-yard games and seven straight. Mitchell's total of 1,350 yards surpasses the freshman total by Nate Kmic, who finished as college football's all-time leading rusher with 8,074 yards.

"I'd like to say we saw this coming, but we had no idea that B.J. was this type of a player," Kehres said.

Burke's receiving corps has been solid all year long and has combined for 197 catches for 3,302 yards and 39 touchdowns and the offensive line, which was makeshift in the beginning of the year, has turned into a reliable unit.

The offense will give Whitewater's defense, which ranks first in points allowed and third in yardage its biggest test of the season. The Warhawks (14-0) return to the Stagg Bowl after missing the playoffs last year and have done it with defense.

Linebackers Cole Klotz and Kyle Wismer along with 2011 Stagg Bowl MVP Loussaint Minett lead the defense that is plus-31 in turnover margin by intercepting 23 passes and forcing 17 fumbles.

Through four playoff games, they've allowed 42 points. Mount Union has given up 99 points in its last two games. On the other side of the ball, the Warhawks have scored 108 points in the playoffs while the Purple Raiders have put 103 points on the board the last two weeks.

Neither coach feels there's a cause for concern with that wide margin in points allowed or scored.

"The worst thing you can do is try to make comparisons but have to realize that all matchups are different. The (weather) conditions can also change a game," said Leipold about the difference in scores. "We are as experienced as they come with our linebackers (both seniors) and both have been the stabilizing factor of our defense. We don't have a Levell Coppage or Justin Beaver at running back on offense this year so we've had to adjust to that. We are also starting two guys on our line that were playing high school football last year."

Kehres didn't balk at the notion there was something wrong with Mount Union's defense because of the points given up. He said there were some minor tweaks here and there but nothing that stood out as a glaring weakness.

"The game of football has changed so much. It's all about offense now and you are seeing more and more teams play faster," Kehres said. "That's giving teams more plays and more points. There's a lot more to defense today and you can't defend everything."

Still the plays are being made on both sides of the ball when needed. The Purple Raiders did stop Wesley and North Central on fourth down late in both playoff games to pull out the wins.

"Their ability to be so explosive is impressive to me," said Leipold. "They start so fast and the confidence is still there. Throughout that program you see the players know they will be successful and a lot of things are still consistent."

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