Game Day: Last chance to knock them off

Matt BlanchardIf you want to keep UW-Whitewater and Mount Union from meeting in Stagg Bowl XXXIX, your options are down to one pair of games on Saturday: Wesley has the last shot at Mount Union and St. Thomas has the last chance to take down UW-Whitewater. In the preseason Top 25, UW-Whitewater was No. 1, Mount Union No. 2, Wesley No. 3 and St. Thomas was No. 5, so these matchups are four months in the making.

Join us on the live chat. Watch the games on television if you’re in one of the local markets, or on via links on the scoreboard. Use the #d3fb hashtag. Send up smoke signals, I don’t care. It’s game day!

Triple Take: Playing for Salem

Three of this weekend’s contenders are on familiar ground, while the third, St. Thomas, has been building to this point over the past three seasons. Adding a dimension of excitement to the St. Thomas/UW-Whitewater matchup is seeing Gagliardi Trophy finalists Fritz Waldvogel and Matt Blanchard lead the offensive charge for their respective teams.

You’ve been following through the first three rounds; you’ve heard the breakdowns of last week and more in the Around the Nation Podcast; and you’ve probably perused the Post Patterns message board for extra bits of insight.

Today’s Triple Take brings all the pieces together with score predictions and analysis of both of the national semifinal games. The winners of these games get to travel to Salem, Division III’s Tinseltown, for the 39th Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl.

On Saturday, there’ll be a live blog running here on The Daily Dose, and all tweets with hashtag #d3fb are included. Take a look at our playoffs home page for our Road to Salem feature stories and more!

Ryan’s take: UW-Whitewater 34, St. Thomas 20
The Warhawks have been dismantling quality teams from Day 1 of the 2011 season. And when a team like the Tommies has one receiver who accounts for three times more receiving yards than other individual on the team, Whitewater will know who to zero in on. Talented defensive backs will be disruptive, and a vicious UW-W front line will get pressure on any quarterback it comes across. And there’s not a running game around that can get through the linebackers led by Greg Arnold and Ryan Cortez (just ask Salisbury). St. Thomas definitely has a couple of stunning skill players, but Whitewater hasn’t gotten to where they are over the past seven seasons without being able to neutralize those skills. The Tommies will need a bit of razzle-dazzle to win; simple strength won’t be enough. I’m not sure that they have it. The Warhawks are tested, and players on the both sides of the ball complement one another. Sure, Warhawk quarterback Matt Blanchard and rusher Levell Coppage are great skill players, but it’s the supporting cast that will make sure this game falls in favor of Whitewater.
Keith’s take: UW-Whitewater 24, St. Thomas 17
So remember last week when I pointed out how UW-Whitewater always plays a close quarterfinal or semifinal, and wrote Salisbury would be that game? Wrong. But I implore you to believe me this week (or don’t): THIS is that game. In all seriousness, there isn’t a program that’s more ready for this challenge than St. Thomas. The Tommies are very much built in the Warhawks’ likeness: Smother the opposing run game (1.56 yards per carry; UW-W allows 2.73; the national average in D-III this season was 3.99), be physical on offense as well, and take care of the ball. I requested game video from both schools this week so I could make a detailed and informed pick. With both teams so dependent on establishing the run (Colin Tobin, 605 yards, 7TDs in playoffs and UW-W’s Levell Coppage, 514 and 10) the only way I felt I could get a feel for if either would be successful was to re-watch both games. Unfortunately only St. Thomas came through. So my insight isn’t what it could be, but there’s this: St. Thomas can win. They’re versatile enough on offense to score and they pursue well on defense, meaning long runs will be hard to come by for the Warhawks. But whenever the going gets tough for UW-Whitewater, they can buckle down and move the ball by handing it to Levell Coppage. And the Tommies, their gaudy rush defense numbers aside, don’t look to the naked eye to be rugged enough to consistently stand up to the Warhawks’ pounding. They’ll need some turnovers and big plays to sway the game, because the Warhawks aren’t flashy, they’re just better than everyone that lines up against them.
Pat’s take: UW-Whitewater 28, St. Thomas 25
I’ve been asked many times in the past couple of weeks if I thought St. Thomas could beat UW-Whitewater. I think they could, but I’d feel more secure in that if they had won their quarterfinal last year and gone on to play Mount Union. I think most teams playing one of the Powers for the first time feel just a little bit of intimidation, but even if not, the adjustment period is noticeable. (Yes, Mary Hardin-Baylor 2004, I see you back there.) St. Thomas has started a bit slow each of the past two weeks, heck, the past three weeks if you think the Tommies shouldn’t have had to punt three times in their first four possessions against St. Scholastica. A slow start against UW-Whitewater could mean a 21-0 deficit. The tough run defense will face the biggest challenge in Division III football. Not many have contained Levell Coppage.

Ryan’s take: Wesley 28, Mount Union 24
I’ve been in this spot before, willing to channel my faith in Wesley into a national semifinal prediction. The Wolverines have emerged from the most loaded bracket of the bunch and have taken down some of the nation’s top polled teams in Linfield and Mary Hardin-Baylor. And they did it in distinctly different ways, playing to the pressure of the moment and coming up big when it was needed. Wesley signal-caller Shane McSweeny is as great a runner as he is a passer, and it’ll be interesting to see how he fares against one of the most statistically stingy run defenses in the country. And Mount’s pass defense benefits from the likes of Nick Driskill, probably the nation’s scariest guy to throw the ball near. Those defensive elements from Mount take away a lot of Wesley’s strength. However, Mount today isn’t the Mount of last year; or of the year before when Cecil Shorts turned a tight matchup against Wesley into a rout. The question that has to be asked is: Is Wesley capable of taking itself to the championship level? They’ve been so close so often since 2005. This is their moment. It won’t be easy, but nothing has been for them this postseason. I’m colorblind, so I probably won’t be able to tell the difference, but the Stagg Bowl will be purple and navy this year.
Keith’s take: Mount Union 20, Wesley 17
I requested and was promised video from both schools here too, but the DVDs never arrived. Because I’m located so close to Dover, I’ve seen Wesley twice this season, and because I didn’t have DirecTV and Sports Time Ohio, I’ve seen less Mount Union than usual. I wanted to be careful not to pick Wesley just because I know more about them. There are two variables here that could greatly sway the outcome: Which QB takes snaps for Mount Union, and which personality Wesley takes on. Neal Seaman, Matt Piloto and freshman Kevin Burke all played for the Purple Raiders last week, and it’s hard to speculate which one they’d be best off with against Wesley. Meanwhile, Wolverines QB Shane McSweeny — the nation’s fourth-most efficient passer and one of its most versatile quarterbacks — has taken care of the ball all season, never throwing more than one interception in a game. He’s thrown 13 TD passes and two interceptions in three playoff wins, against by far the best competition any of the semifinalists have played. That’s key, because the Purple Raiders are famously successful when winning the turnover battle — 162-1 since 1990, with the loss coming in the 1995 playoffs. So we’ve got two major themes: How Charles Dieseul, Nick Driskill and a smothering defense deals with the multiple threats of McSweeny, the big body of tight end Sean McAndrew and the speed of Wesley’s Steven Koudoussou and Matt Barile. And then how Wesley’s defense — equally adept at smothering teams — functions against Mount Union’s not-as-dynamic-as-usual offense. The Wolverines played great halves against Linfield and Mary Hardin-Baylor; they’ll need to play four great quarters to slow RB Jeremy Murray and the Purple Raiders’ offense. Are the poor tackling, penalty-prone Wolverines going to show up in Alliance, or are the sharp, multitalented, inspired-by-Ben Knapp Wolverines going to be there? I could honestly see a St. Thomas-Wesley Stagg Bowl, and it would be refreshing for D-III to shake things up a little. But I’ve learned my lesson being wrong over the years. In a game in Alliance, the safe pick is the Purple Raiders.
Pat’s take: Mount Union 16, Wesley 13
I still like Mount Union’s chances of winning with defense, even if they are indeed down to their third-string quarterback. The defense should play well enough, especially the front six, to keep Wesley’s offense in check. I agree this is Wesley’s best chance, but I am not sure that is enough here. Keeping Shane McSweeny contained is the key to stopping the Wesley offense, granted, but I think it’s also time to give the Purple Raiders special teams some shine as well. If Hobart and Kean can put Wesley in bad spots with special teams plays, couldn’t Mount Union also? Enough offense will come. Mount Union can’t score like Linfield or Mary Hardin-Baylor, but won’t need to either.