It’s going to take some great defense to keep Mount Union in check.
Photo by Dan Poel, d3photography.com
The winners this weekend will earn the opportunity to compete for the Walnut and Bronze in Salem.
The left side of the bracket, with UW-Oshkosh and St. Thomas, will yield a winner who has never before played on Division III’s biggest stage. On the right side, the Top 25 poll’s first- and second-place teams square off, and both Mount Union and Mary Hardin-Baylor are on familiar ground.
Saturday builds to the football finale that will take place at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 14. Pat, Keith and Ryan bring you their projections for who will play in Stagg Bowl XL – and by how big of a margin they’ll get there.
No. 5 UW-Oshkosh at No. 4 St. Thomas
Ryan’s take: UW-Oshkosh 24, St. Thomas 21 Here are two teams that were absolutely blazing beasts with their performances last week — but in very different ways. St. Thomas decimated a Hobart team that came in holding all the right cards to match up well against the Tommies. That’s a tip of the hat to the winner, who proved that games aren’t won on paper but rather on the field. Can you even remember a team that posted 200 rushing yards on Hobart? UST is the first to do it since September. And farther out west, it’s no secret that I’d hitched my wagon to Linfield since before the season started, and the fact that UW-O battled back from a 21-6 halftime deficit to push overtime and then earn the win gets tremendous respect in my book. Rushing, passing, Nate Wara-ing — the Titans we able to do it all against a great Linfield team. I realize I’m spending this whole post gushing on the teams without really saying why I’m going with Oshkosh. Fact is, I’m impressed with the foundation that both these teams have built, and it’ll be fun watching them go head to head on Saturday. But the Titans will be a little better at holding in check what the Tommies throw their way.
Keith’s take: UW-Oshkosh 28, St. Thomas 21: In all honesty, who the heck knows what’s going to happen here? Isn’t not knowing part of the fun? St. Thomas probably surges to an early double-digit lead, and UW-Oshkosh storms back, wears the Tommies down and continues its magical run towards the Stagg Bowl. That would make sense, the WIAC champ back in Salem, just with the Titans playing the role of the Warhawks. It would be rather depressing for the Tommies to have the season end in this round in back-to-back seasons, so I’m betting St. Thomas sees this as their chance to break through. The matchup to watch is when the Tommies’ defense is on the field against the UW-Oshkosh offense. What a chess match that’ll be, if you read this week’s feature about the Tommies’ success getting off the field on third downs, and how they have a thick playbook capable of giving multiple looks to an offense. The Titans’ offense is a combination of confusion, tempo and power, and all season it’s both worn teams down, and caught them at one point or another out of place for big plays. UST opened up with two WIAC teams, and is familiar with this level of competition from MIAC play and by beating a CCIW team in Round 2. I haven’t done any detailed video study of the teams’ tendencies, so don’t go getting your panties in a wad over the pick (although that’s more for the fans of the other game; I got zero complaints for picking against the Tommies last week, and zero taunts for missing the margin by 41 points). It’s an educated guess. And I don’t really care if it’s right or wrong. On Saturday, I’ll be enjoying the moment and the chance to see someone new earn a shot at a Stagg Bowl. If you’re thinking about how the D3football.com guys missed the picks instead of doing the same, you’re cheating yourself. This is the high-water mark for whichever program wins, so soak up every second of it. Even if it’s not another Titans come-from-behind victory.
Pat’s take: St. Thomas 27, UW-Oshkosh 21. Neither of these is a one-man team, so the nicks and bruises of a regular season shouldn’t have as much impact as they would on teams that were eliminated earlier in the bracket. Wara is about as indispensable a player as there is in this game, though. On the other side of the ball, probably Ryan Stefaniak, who is the heart and soul of that defense. On the St. Thomas offense, perhaps Logan Marks (and I’ll explain more in a minute) and on the defense, I like how Chinni Oji has been playing at safety. Oji first made a big impact on the Tommie defense when he replaced a classmate at corner a couple of seasons ago, and now he’s making his presence felt at safety. About Marks — sure, Matt O’Connell is the guy with the ball in his hands all the time, but Kyler Anderson has done well when given playing time, and the drop-off might not be so bad. But without Marks at tight end, you go to Matt Allen, and then the Tommies’ two-tight end sets would see a dramatic difference. If St. Thomas comes out as fast as it did last week and UW-Oshkosh as slow as it did the first two weekends of the tournament, it may not be this close.
No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor at No. 1 Mount Union
Ryan’s take: Mount Union 35, Mary Hardin-Baylor 28. Over several years of doing Triple Take, I’ve picked against Mount at times, and it’s often cost me. And this decision was not an easy one, because UMHB will be the toughest test of the season for Mount. By all accounts, this matchup could be more competitive than the Stagg Bowl itself. I’m going with the Purple Raiders because, despite all that the Cru has going for them, they haven’t always been able to protect their end zone as well as they should. Twenty points from teams like Louisiana College or Franklin easily translates to 35 (or more) from The Machine. Of course, the Crusaders’ offense has averaged more than 55 points over the past six games, and it will be interesting to see if the Sultans of Shutouts are able to stop the Texas threat. Both teams, on both sides of the ball, are packed with playmakers, but more importantly, have such great supporting casts that there is little question that either team would be an ideal representative of Division III in Salem. This is not a pick against UMHB, but rather one in favor of Mount Union. None of these players have tasted Stagg Bowl success, and there’s no doubt they’ll leave every last bit of themselves on the field.
Keith’s take: Mount Union 37, Mary Hardin-Baylor 30. I don’t think there’s anything groundbreaking to say here. People from UMHB are saying this is the best Cru team in history, and people from Mount Union are putting this team alongside the great Purple Raiders squads. While I think both sides can be right, only one team is going to Salem — a quirk that’s on those who set up the brackets. Each team is going to be the best team the other has played this season, and champions need to overcome intense challenges to solidify their greatness. Excuse the hyperbole, but think of it like this: Would Ali have been Ali without Frazier? Each of these teams is capable of going down alongside the great champions, and the signature victory would help define it. So how can it happen? Nobody can match Mount Union’s team speed, although UMHB could come close. Mount Union hasn’t faced a quarterback like LiDarral Bailey, who’s got speed with the ball in his hands and touch when he lets it go. But Kevin Burke has shown that skill set as well, so Javicz Jones and the UMHB defense has to be able to deal with a QB who can keep it on a read option, or toss it over defenders’ heads if Jasper Collins or somebody gets a step on a DB. Truthfully, this game will probably be decided along the lines, and I give Mount Union the edge there. If UMHB is able to muscle up like it did in 2004, it’d send shockwaves through the D-III world. But if you think about it, that’s the way UW-Whitewater beats the Purple Raiders too. Last week showed me that this Mount Union team is not just better than last year’s team by a lot. They sure make it look like they are ready to take their place in Purple Raiders history, but they’ll need to go through the best team the rest of D-III has to offer, one whose talent might be on their level in the way UW-Whitewater teams have been, to seal the deal. I’m going with the safe pick, and hope, no matter who wins, we see a semifinal to remember.
Pat’s take: Mount Union 38, Mary Hardin-Baylor 20. I think that Mary Hardin-Baylor has faced some pretty good offenses this year, certainly better offenses than Mount Union has seen. The UMHB defense has been tested. And sometimes it’s failed a bit. If Hardin-Simmons can score 32 on UMHB, how many can Mount Union score? I figure at least a few more. Mary Hardin-Baylor won’t be intimidated in this game, unlike most Mount Union opponents, but confidence alone will not be enough to win. UMHB had its two worst running days (by yards per carry) against Wesley and won’t find it easier to run the ball on Mount Union. Now, here’s where it might turn in UMHB’s favor: The Cru have had to play its starters well into the fourth quarter a few times this season, including this past week. If the game remains close, Mary Hardin-Baylor has the ability to wear opponents down. And as I’ve mentioned all season, the Cru has a credible passing game, perhaps even a really good passing game. Maybe not as good as Widener, but with a running game to take some of the pressure off, Bailey should have some time to work. And of course, the ability to pull the ball down and take off. That’s how UMHB could win.