ATN Podcast: Pro prospects

We’re back with another Around the Nation Podcast for May, with Pat and Keith talking about the recent NFL draft and its aftermath, with Division III football players signing and others getting invites to rookie tryout minicamps with teams as well. But one of the best stories of the offseason so far has been a player from last year’s draft class, Concordia-Moorhead quarterback Griffin Neal. He talks about his year playing overseas in Germany and how he managed to talk his way into a pro day and eventually try out for the New Orleans Saints.

Ohio Northern coach Dean Paul chats with us as well, about what his team has coming back, the state of the Ohio Athletic Conference and his former wide receiver Devon Price’s chances of sticking with an NFL team. Meanwhile, Mike Cerasuolo, the new head coach at Springfield, talks about taking over the program at his alma mater from his former coach and what that might mean for the Pride’s signature triple-option offense.

The Around the Nation Podcast is a weekly conversation (monthly in the offseason) between Pat Coleman and Keith McMillan covering the wide range of Division III football. It drops on Monday morning weekly throughout the season.

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Stagg Bowl 43 predictions: The last purple power standing …

Friday night is significant in many ways. This particular Stagg Bowl is the culmination of another great Division III football season, one in which a record 247 teams and likely more than 20,000 players took part in about 1,200 games over 16 weeks from Castine, Maine to Thousand Oaks, Calif. And the final two teams standing are familiar faces. D-III will have a new champion, as the current holder of the crown, UW-Whitewater, was deposed in the semifinals.

Mount Union, in its 19th Stagg Bowl since 1993, will be looking for its 12th championship. St. Thomas, in its second, will be looking for its first … in football. The Tommies have won 15 championships in other sports.

These teams met in the 2012 Stagg Bowl, the only one since 2005 not to feature a Mount Union/UW-Whitewater clash. The Purple Raiders prevailed, 28-10. Twelve St. Thomas players, freshmen on that day, could go out as champions by avenging that loss. Coach Glenn Caruso could complete a leap for a program that was ranked 206th when he took over. Mount Union coach Vince Kehres has won championships as a player and assistant coach, but is 0 for 2 as a head coach. Purple Raiders quarterback Taurice Scott has played in a Stagg Bowl, even scored a touchdown, but has never been the starting quarterback.

The reasons to be intrigued are many, but the best one is that we’ll probably have a competitive game. Both purple-wearing teams have dominated all season, up to and through the semifinals. Each team beat another top-five team by at least three scores in the semis. So how the heck should you know who’ll win? Enter the trusty Triple Take panel, expanded to include almost all of the staff in Salem this week, plus a few guest prognosticators who cover each Stagg Bowl participant closely. Below, we each take our best guesses at who’ll win and why.

Nobody consulted with one another. Last season, our panel split, 4-3, for UW-Whitewater, and we’ve taken a stab at predicting the winner in every Stagg Bowl since 1999. Feel free to add your pick and reasoning in the comments section below. And thanks to Clark Ruhland, who created the graphic above for the City of Salem.

— Keith McMillan

Mount Union logo
Pat Coleman, publisher and executive editor
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about various ways this game might go down, and I can definitely see some ways in which St. Thomas can win. They could pound the rock, control the clock, get an occasional stop and maybe a big special teams play and win that way. Or their defense could be so good that Mount Union finds itself stymied in both phases of the offense and can only break through occasionally. Taurice Scott is very much like Augsburg quarterback Ayrton Scott — so much so that the two were both considered very closely for All-America status. But while they are both similarly talented, the Scott wearing purple is probably a better decision maker. And it helps when your offensive line gives you a little more time to make those decisions. That’s where Mount has the advantage — a playmaking quarterback and playmaking wide receiver. Meanwhile, I’ll be watching the play along the lines as much as possible — do Jordan Roberts and Jack Kaiser get the room they need to run? Can the line hold off Tom Lally, Mike Furda and the rest long enough to make longer routes happen? (And then will Jack Gilliland hang onto the ball if he gets it on one of those routes?) In the end, I see the Mount Union passing game as enough of an advantage to overcome St. Thomas’ ball control and special teams advantage. And if I knew who had the advantage on defense, I’d be really good at this.
Mount Union 21, St. Thomas 15
Mount Union logo
Keith McMillan, national columnist and managing editor emeritus
Mount Union’s got the name and the pedigree, but St. Thomas certainly has a chance on Friday night, and it starts up front. If the Tommies’ dominant O-line can push around Tom Lally, Mike Furda, Hank Spencer and company, the national championship trophy is going back to Minnesota. If not, it isn’t. The matchup between the Tommies’ blockers and Mount Union’s front six is one of two deciding factors. The other will be how Mount Union wide receiver Roman Namdar matches up with Mozus Ikuenobe and Jordan Young, the Tommies’ two corners, who can match the size of the Purple Raiders’ star wide receiver. Can they match the speed? In the end, Mount Union has a pretty good offensive line of its own, and an outstanding quarterback in Taurice Scott, so that’s where my pick lands. But I really think whoever controls the line of scrimmage when the Tommies have the ball wins the game.
Mount Union 21, St. Thomas 17

Mount Union logoRyan Tipps, Around the Nation columnist
Coach Vince Kehres was clear after last weekend’s game that the Purple Raiders know their job isn’t done. It was a great feeling to beat UW-Whitewater so thoroughly, but in the end, it was just the penultimate step to the Walnut and Bronze. Friday in Salem is the day that matters most. Mount Union is as complete and dominating as it has ever been. Mount’s offensive and defensive lines made certain to purge the past story lines about them getting beaten in the trenches. As strong and agile as Tom Lally and Durum Alarms and others are on defense, and as foundationally sound as Mitch Doraty and the rest of the O-line is, I don’t see this crew giving an inch, let alone a mile. The Purple Raiders have a nimble quarterback and workhorse rusher to channel the best traits of teams from years gone by. All this is not to say that St. Thomas is going to get steam-rolled or to have no shot. The Tommies are adept at wearing down their opponents and making big dogs look like puppies. Jordan Roberts is unquestionably an All-American-caliber back who will test Mount’s defense unlike anyone else this season. Focus too much on him, though, and UST’s passing game will light up. The Tommies have been noted this season as being a team without massive individual star power. Rather, they’re a “team” in every great sense of the word — units working as one on both sides of the ball, moving together and winning together. We will see a better matchup between these teams than we did in 2012, and one of these two head coaches, Kehres or Glenn Caruso, will get their first Stagg Bowl victory at the helm of their team.
Mount Union 31, St. Thomas 27

Mount Union logoAdam Turer, Around the Mid-Atlantic columnist
I think we can all agree that these are undoubtedly the top two teams in the nation. The number one offense and defense pitted against the second-ranked offense and defense. These teams have mirrored one another all season. Both have overpowering offensive lines keying power rushing attacks. Both have talented, physical cornerbacks who can man up and allow the front six/seven to play aggressive defense. Both have seniors who stepped into starting quarterback roles for the first time and have done much more than hand the ball off. Both teams have balance. The question we’ll need answered is which team has a weakness, and which team will expose the other’s weakness first? The matchup I’m most interested to see comes when the Tommies have the ball. Mount Union cornerback Tre Jones can take away a team’s best receiver, as he did against UW-W’s Marcus Hudson last week. But will he match up with the Tommies’ best receiver, who happens to be tight end Charlie Dowdle? Will the front led by Tom Lally, Mike Furda, and Durum Alarms, be able to pressure John Gould into forcing some poor decisions, or will David Simmet and company give him plenty of time as they have done all season (15 sacks allowed in 14 games)? I can’t imagine Mount Union losing three straight Stagg Bowls, especially as good as they looked last week against UW-W. But this appears to be the kind of special St. Thomas team that is capable of taking the program to unprecedented heights. This should be a Stagg Bowl for the ages.
Mount Union 24, St. Thomas 23

UST logoFrank Rossi, Stagg Bowl sideline reporter
There are two key questions to look at when examining this game.  First, will Mount Union come out flat after beating the school the Purple Raiders faced in umpteen Stagg Bowls?  Second, who will win the war in the trenches that has really been the key reason Wisconsin-Whitewater won recent Stagg Bowls against Mount Union — Kevin Burke was constantly on the run the past two years, throwing off Mount Union’s offensive rhythm? I think St. Thomas possesses a small edge in the answers to both of these questions, enough to make this a very close and exciting game. I’ll say that the Tommies upset the 4 1/2-point favorite Purple Raiders.
St. Thomas 30, Mount Union 26

UST logo Fritz Waldvogel, 830 WCCO sideline reporter & ex-Tommie, Gagliardi Trophy finalist
The rematch from the 2012 Stagg Bowl will be a great battle between what seems to be the two best teams in the country.  Both teams have been able to roll through all their opponents throughout the year for 14-0 records. It will be interesting to see how each team will adapt assuming it will be a close game that will require a full four quarters. At the end of the day, the game will be won and lost in the trenches. It will be UST’s big offensive line vs. a dynamic Mount Union front six as well as the blitzing Tommie defense against an athletic Purple Raider offensive line. I think UST’s run game with a healthy Jordan Roberts will be able wear down the Mount Union defense throughout the game and the Tommies will be able to efficiently throw the football when they need to. It will be a defensive struggle throughout the game with special teams and field position being key, but the Tommies win their first Stagg Bowl.
St. Thomas 24, Mount Union 21

Mount Union logo Jeff Zupanic, Alliance Review Mount Union beat reporter
One of the biggest questions Mount Union’s players/coaches have been asked over the past week is will there be a letdown against St. Thomas? Head coach Vince Kehres emphatically says no. “This is Week 15, there’s no letdown at this point” has been his typical reply. For the Purple Raiders, their season isn’t defined by any single victory regardless of if the opponent is Baldwin Wallace or UW-Whitewater, it’s about that week’s challenge. This year’s senior class was part of the 2012 national championship team and a handful of them played in that Stagg Bowl. But all-American safety Alex Kocheff said it best when he said that while he started and played the whole game four years ago against St. Thomas, he felt it was the seniors’ moment. Four years later, Kocheff and the other Purple Raiders have a shot for their moment. Everything they’ve worked on the past three years under Kehres can be rewarded with a national championship. Make no mistake about it, St. Thomas provides a formidable test with their offensive line and running attack. Their special teams trickery has also helped them get to this point. Both those have also been strengths for Mount Union too. Under Kehres, the Purple Raiders have executed two fake punts, a fake field goal and two fake PATs. Much like 2012, there’s just a feeling that it’s Mount Union’s year and their experience — three players will be playing in their 60th game — is an hard factor to overlook. No. 12 comes back to Alliance.
Mount Union 35, St. Thomas 21

Mount Union logoKevin Niehus, Division III football analyst and former Thomas More quarterback
Even though it’s a rematch of the 2012 Stagg Bowl, the game feels fresh.  And to be honest, I love this matchup and you should too. St. Thomas represents hope for the rest of D-III when you consider eight years ago, this program was coming off a 2-8 season. Then it hired Glenn Caruso, and into the 2015 Stagg Bowl it brings the nation’s second-ranked scoring offense and second-ranked scoring defense while having punted only 12 times in the first 10 games. But guess who has the first-ranked scoring offense and scoring defense? Yep. That ole blue blood, Mount Union on the other sideline. There’s plenty of intrigue as there is a contrast in offensive and defensive styles. Will St. Thomas be able to take that offensive line, which averages 6-foot-4, 310 pounds, and run the ball down Mount Union’s throat? How do they match up with a defense which has one player at each level of the defense, who is making his 60th start (Tom Lally, Jonathan Gonell and Alex Kocheff). A fast defense, which Caruso has gone on record saying is part of the fastest team they’ve faced this season. Is Jordan Roberts healthy enough to slam the ball on those off tackle power plays? The concern is if they can’t run the ball on Mount Union, this is an offense where John Gould is only 29 for 53 with two TDs and two INTs in his past three games, which came against the best teams St. Thomas has faced all season. Yes, they didn’t need him to throw with Roberts and Jack Kaiser following that line. Yes, they dominated the best teams they’ve faced. And as a result, Nick Waldvogel only has 15 catches in the last three games while Dowdle only has seven.  Are they using a Larry Kehres/Greg Micheli trick here, where they don’t want their passing game on film? We’ll find out Friday night.

Meanwhile, the other half of the matchup is a big-play, quick strike Mount Union offense triggered by Taurice Scott, versus an aggressive, stack the box St. Thomas defense. Scott has been sensational during the playoffs while Roman Namdar and Tim Kennedy have been on the receiving end of some big plays.  And they run it pretty well, too, with Logan Nemeth. St. Thomas will load the box to stop the run and try to put stress on the Mount Union offensive line charged with protecting Scott. The St. Thomas corners have played well thus far, but that defensive front seven can’t get home every time. I feel like Caruso will try some kind of trickeration Friday night.The Tommies are 26-2 when they score via an interception, blocked punt, or punt/kick return. I’m rambling because I’m going back and forth on how this game will go.  St. Thomas is 15-5 under Caruso in the playoffs – but 14 of those wins came at home.  I don’t think the front seven of St. Thomas will get home every time and as a result, Mount Union will score points early. I don’t believe UST is positioned at this point in the season to win a game via the air. Mount Union already faced down one of its demons last weekend and shut down the Whitewater offense, holding them to six points — and that HAS to count for something.  Too many little nagging questions for St. Thomas while Mount Union already faced down an opponent in Whitewater, who is stylistically similar to St. Thomas.  In the end, I like the explosiveness of the Mount Union offense and their elite defense a little better than I do the other Purple Power lining up across from them.
Mount Union 34, St. Thomas 24

We invite you to add your predictions in the comments below, or tweet at us (names above are linked). Download the season’s final Around the Nation podcast, recorded from the press box in Salem, wrapping up the season following the Stagg Bowl and announcing the players and coach of the year.


Semifinals: Four purple powers play for the right to meet in Salem

We often use the phrase “Purple Powers” to refer to Mount Union and UW-Whitewater, since they’ve faced off in all but one Stagg Bowl since 2005, with the Warhawks winning six. In 2012, Mount Union beat St. Thomas. The last team besides those three to win in Salem? That would be Linfield, in 2004, which beat another purple-clad team, Mary-Hardin Baylor, both on that day and in this year’s quarterfinals.

So we’re comfortable calling this year’s four semifinalists, Mount Union, UW-Whitewater, St. Thomas and Linfield, purple powers in their own rights. We can honestly envision any of these teams losing on Saturday, or winning it all. So whatever Division III lacks in final four variety, it makes up for with competitive intrigue. Of the 28 playoff games so far, our panelists have picked all but two (Keith), three (Pat) or four (Ryan) winners correctly, but we might not guess correctly again. We’ll take stabs at it anyway, because readers appreciate it so much.

If I had to characterize this week simply, it would be the brutes (St. Thomas and UW-Whitewater) against the fancy pantses (Linfield and Mount Union). Of course the Wildcats and Purple Raiders are strong and gritty too, and the Tommies and Warhawks have playmakers capable of dazzling, but you’ll see speed and ability to get up the field more from Mount Union and Linfield. St. Thomas and UW-Whitewater would be fine lining up and mauling their opponents.

Around the Nation columnist Ryan Tipps, editor and publisher Pat Coleman and I will go into further detail with our picks below. Disagree? Then please add your picks and insights in the comments section. On Monday’s podcast, Pat and I will revisit the weekend and preview the national championship game.

— Keith McMillan

Our Triple Take Crew: Keith McMillan
Keith McMillan
Ryan Tipps
Ryan Tipps
Pat Coleman
Pat Coleman

UW-Whitewater (12-1) at Mount Union (13-0), noon ET, ESPN3

UW-Whitewater logoKeith: UW-Whitewater 34, Mount Union 28
This time last week, I don’t think you could have convinced me to pick the Warhawks over the Purple Raiders. Oh sure, beating playoff-caliber teams 51-7 and 66-7 doesn’t give any clue to how they’ll fare against UW-Whitewater (the Purple Raiders are 3-6, and 0-2 under Vince Kehres). But Mount Union had a dominant defense, a very competent offense and had been my No. 1-ranked team since October. UW-Whitewater had been good, but didn’t have that “it” that their previous championship teams have had, be it at quarterback, in the secondary, down the middle of the defense, at offensive skill positions or on the coaching staff. But in the second half last week against UW-Oshkosh, possibly the best D-III team not still playing this week, I caught a glimpse of “it.” The Warhawks’ offensive line — From left, Jordan Mueller, Mitchell Schauer, Spencer Shier, Austin Jones and Tony Koepnick — were again moving as one on run plays, and providing all the time in the world on pass plays. That’s a problem for Mount Union, because the best part of the defense might be the line, led by Tom Lally and Mike Furda. If the UW-Whitewater offensive line can keep those guys and Mike Vidal and Elijah Berry off Chris Nelson, the Warhawks quarterback will find Marcus Hudson and Joe Worth for big plays, and Jordan Ratliffe will be able to run. Mount Union coach Vince Kehres came through the ranks as a defensive player and coordinator, so there’s no outsmarting him, or a defense anchored on the back end by Gagliardi Trophy final-10 safety Alex Kocheff. But the Warhawks don’t really win by outsmarting teams, they win by wearing them down. I see Mount Union scoring some points, and being in the game late. But if the Warhawks have the ball late in a close game, Mount Union will have to prove why we should expect something different. There have been some epic semifinals in Alliance, and this one might join the ranks. The question is whether the home fans will leave happy, or with a sixth loss to UW-Whitewater in the past six meetings and without a trip to Salem for the first time since 2004.
UW-Whitewater logo

Ryan: UW-Whitewater 41, Mount Union 31
Not only is this regular matchup not happening in Salem, but I also think that Whitewater will prevent a rematch of the 2012 UMU/UST Stagg Bowl. The Warhawks won me over last week by avenging the regular-season loss to Oshkosh. UW-W has felt the pressure of playing a team close into the third quarter and knows what it takes to end the game with a win. Mount Union hasn’t been in that situation this season, jumping out to early leads and making them stick for the full 60 minutes. There are playmakers all over the field, on both teams and both sides of the ball, and that will make for some really exciting and memorable moments in this matchup — and it will help to keep this game close for much of the time. Ultimately, as in years past, it comes down to me liking the front lines of the Warhawks better than those of the Purple Raiders, and many Stagg Bowls in the past decade have been won in the trenches.

Mount Union logo
Pat: Mount Union 35, UW-Whitewater 30
We’re in uncharted waters here, with these two teams meeting on Mount Union’s home field, and in my analysis, I’m putting this on the edge on the sidelines, for Mount Union. In previous meetings, I think UWW has had the coaching advantage but with all the changes on that sideline, I have to give Mount Union the benefit of my doubt. Meanwhile, I think these teams are pretty evenly matched. The key matchup, as with every Whitewater-Mount Union game (and probably every Purple Power game) is along the front lines, and I’ll be interested to see how the Purple Raiders, with a few more seniors up front, attack the Warhawks’ offensive line. Jordan Ratliffe has been worked a lot lately and although he seemed not to really feel the 38 carries he got vs. Wheaton, at some point that begins to have an impact. But the other matchup I’m most keyed on is the Whitewater secondary vs. the Mount Union passing game. This is a big test for the Purple Raiders, who haven’t really faced this level of competition this season. The thing I like most about this game, however, is we can focus on the football, and so can the teams. There’s no constant ESPN presence at this game, no banquets, no local community service, just line ’em up and go.

Linfield (12-0) at St. Thomas (13-0), 2:30 CT, ESPN3

UST logo
Keith: St. Thomas 28, Linfield 24
Outside of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio, Linfield is probably the sentimental favorite. Let’s start there. After a string of playoff heartbreak, against UW-Whitewater (2009 semifinals), St. Thomas (2010 second round, in overtime), Wesley (2011 second round), UW-Oshkosh (2012 quarterfinals, in overtime) and UW-Whitewater twice more (2013 quarters and 2014 semis), it would be natural to for a neutral fan to pull for a Linfield breakthrough. Then when you add in that they’re still hoisting after games the framed jersey of Parker Moore, the player who was killed near campus in 2014, recently had their play-by-play voice pass away and had a backup quarterback pass for 492 yards in coming from 21 points behind, how could you not pull for the Wildcats? From the Catdome Alumni videos to Coach Joe Smith’s mustache to the comeback last week against UMHB, it just looks like a fun program that represents the spirit of Division III. But, these choices are made with the head, not with the heart (Besides, Glenn Caruso and St. Thomas are fun and equally spirited). I’m drawn to something Wabash coach Erik Raeburn said after last week’s quarterfinal loss to the Tommies; that St. Thomas was able to stack as many as nine in the box because the cornerbacks were taking away the outside receivers. If you listened to our podcast this week, you’d have learned that St. Thomas sacrifices some size for speed on defense, and that Linfield’s wide receivers have gone unheralded much of the season, though they had a huge game against UMHB last week. If the matchup favors the corners again, the Tommies are fairly open about their plan to stop Spencer Payne and the rushing attack, then get after the Linfield quarterback. And frankly, it doesn’t matter to me which one it is, since in six-plus quarters of Tom Knecht, Linfield hasn’t slowed down from Sam Riddle’s pace. I don’t care about Linfield being on the road either; an elite team can win on any field. But between the secondary/wide receiver matchup, and the fact that 6-foot-9, 350-pound tackle David Simmet will likely be blocking Linfield’s best defensive player, Alex Hoff (unless, of course, Jackson Vaughan moves Hoff around), the matchups seem to favor the Tommies. One more ring of the victory bell is possible.
UST logo
Ryan: St. Thomas 31, Linfield 24
We’re at the point in the season where every team has weapons on both offense and defense, every team is tested against good competition, and every team has a legitimate shot at making it to Salem — and winning it all. And those facts make it difficult to create separation between these Linfield and St. Thomas. As with last week, the health of Linfield quarterback Sam Riddle is crucial. With him, I would give the Wildcats the nod in this game. Without him, well… I was pleased to see how well Tom Knecht stepped up against Mary Hardin-Baylor last week, especially in the second half. But I think the team needs Riddle at 100 percent in order to advance. There’s just no margin for error at this level of the game. Both defenses should stand tall this weekend, and it would be no surprise to see those units contributing to the scoreboard. Linfield will also be hurt by UST’s ability to take away the run game and force the Wildcats to throw the ball. Pinning Linfield into one-dimensional play will help the Tommies come out on top.
UST logo
Pat: St. Thomas 24, Linfield 17
We’ve seen St. Thomas dismantle basically everyone this year, including some pretty good teams. And I’ve seen a couple of those games in person, along with having seen Linfield in-person once. I’m savvy enough to understand that Linfield having or not having quarterback Sam Riddle is not the only factor to this game, nor is any possible limitation to St. Thomas running back Jordan Roberts. Similar to what I said about the UWW-Mount Union game, the lines and that battle up front will be a huge factor here. St. Thomas’ secondary will get a test this week, similar to what it saw at the end of the regular season with Gustavus Adolphus. Even though the Gusties were just 7-3 overall, they had a national-level passing attack and the Tommies held them more than a hundred yards below their average. So Linfield is the best passing attack St. Thomas has seen and St. Thomas is the best rushing attack Linfield has faced. I’m meandering around this because in the end, I’m picking against the team that’s No. 1 in my poll.

We invite you to add your predictions in the comments below, along with our own Adam Turer, or tweet at us at @D3Keith, @NewsTipps and @d3football. Download the Around the Nation podcast on Mondays, where Pat and Keith review the picks and the highlights from the semifinal round.