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Quick Hits: Predictions for Stagg Bowl XLVI

We have one game left, and we are beyond quick predictions, and beyond six predictions at that. So for the big game, we bring out a couple more experts, and we give everyone a couple hundred words to work with. We’ve been making these predictions ever since 1999, when our panel correctly picked what everyone in Division III thought was an upset — Pacific Lutheran over Rowan. Last year, our panel correctly picked Mount Union, in a 5-3 decision over Mary Hardin-Baylor.

Nobody consulted with one another. Feel free to add your pick and reasoning in the comments section below.

Pat Coleman, D3football.com publisher and executive editor

Sometimes the entirety of a football season, especially a 15-game one, is a battle of attrition. Last year, surely, UMHB would have liked to have had T.J. Josey healthy for more than a couple of snaps in the title game. This year, that person could be De’Nerian Thomas for UMHB or Jared Ruth or Cole Moxie for Mount Union. Or D’Angelo Fulford for the Purple Raiders, for that matter. Regardless of who is able to go, though, the keys will likely remain the same: control the running ability of whomever is taking snaps. Keep the receivers in front of you so the quarterback can’t burn you with the deep ball. That sort of thing. When I moved my No. 1 vote from Mount Union to UMHB earlier in the season, it was with the thought that the Cru have enough quarterback options to provide the depth needed for the long haul. Now, however, the offense has to be in doubt a bit. And perhaps that’s true for both sides. Regardless, I’m looking forward to a game that has a bit more scoring than last year, despite all the time I just spent doubting everyone’s offense.
Mary Hardin-Baylor 17, Mount Union 14

Keith McMillan, D3football.com national columnist and managing editor emeritus

I’ve had UMHB No. 1 since midway through the season, and in beating three top-10 teams (Hardin-Simmons, St. John’s and UW-Whitewater) to get to the first Stagg Bowl held in their home state, the Crusaders earn the right to go in favored, even against the defending champions. Mount Union’s best trait this year seems to be something that’s hard to quantify — the ability to win a game however it needs to be won, with opportunistic defense, high-powered offense, grit — so by no means is this a “it’s definitely going to happen this way” pick. Both UMHB and UMU are in the Stagg Bowl because they’re adaptable, and because they mirror each other — the direct-snap run package, the turnover-causing defenses, the swarming tacklers. So this game might not be much prettier than last year’s, unless one side figures out how to turn turnovers or special teams plays into points. If it boils down to a conservative defensive slugfest where both teams need to play mistake-free, UMHB has the edge.
Mary Hardin-Baylor 21, Mount Union 14

Adam Turer, D3football.com Around the Nation columnist

Both teams enter Friday’s rematch with questions behind center. Is Jase Hammack healthy enough to start and finish the game? Is DeNerian Thomas healthy enough to provide a run/pass threat and change of pace? Will former quarterback turned wide receiver T.J. Josey be pressed into quarterback duties, a la Cecil Shorts in 2010? On the other side, is D’Angelo Fulford physically and mentally recovered from his rough outing in the semifinals? Or will the Purple Raiders be forced to rely on running back Josh Petruccelli taking direct snaps to grind out a win? I don’t think Mount Union repeats its performance from last week. Instead, I think the Purple Raiders repeat as champions for the first time since 2005-2006. Like they did in Stagg Bowl XLV, the Cru will struggle on offense due to inexperience at the quarterback position. The Purple Raiders will load up to stop Markeith Miller and will come up with enough big plays, either turnovers or on special teams, to squeeze out some points against the nation’s top scoring defense. This could be a heartwarming story for the local program, but the Purple Raiders will refuse to cooperate. Mount Union has the rare chance to do something the program has never done before, winning a Stagg Bowl outside of Salem. Mount Union’s playmakers on defense get the job done, leaving the home crowd in Shenandoah disappointed.
Mount Union 20, Mary Hardin-Baylor 12

Ryan Tipps, D3football.com senior editor

Despite the fact that this Stagg Bowl features the teams with the first- and second-best scoring offenses in the nation, I don’t forsee this as being an obscenely high-scoring game. The fact of the matter is that these defenses are among the elite, too. UMHB’s journey (involving the dismantling of two Top 5 teams) has prepared them better for the destination than did Mount’s. The past two weeks have proven UMHB’s ability to expertly defend against both the pass and the run, and the team can move the ball to get the points it needs. Mount, on the other hand, has a lot of great aspects but has shown vulnerability at times, and I think they haven’t really faced anyone yet to take advantage of those soft spots the way UMHB can (and will). It’ll be a good game, but the home-state squad gets the W.
Mary Hardin-Baylor 24, Mount Union 14

Frank Rossi, D3football.com Stagg Bowl sideline reporter

I see this game as a huge first-half chess match, with two teams that will resume a tight, conservative battle from last year’s game and two defenses that will thrive in that. However, the changes that UMHB made between last year and this year focused on their offense and the issues they experienced in the pocket. That meant finding a pocket passer and also a quarterback with pure speed that could ensure the ball moved out of the pocket quickly. Eventually, that will pay off for UMHB. They’ll take a lead in the second half, and that will inspire D’Angelo Fulford to fight back — an offensive showdown will finally develop between the teams. On paper, the teams line up very evenly. That means the home-state advantage matters here — with the crowd likely being 6-to-1 in favor of the CRU. That’s why I give them the edge in a higher-scoring game than many people expect.
Mary Hardin-Baylor 24, Mount Union 21

Greg Thomas, D3football.com contributor and bracketology consultant

Here we are again. Despite usual and expected grumblings about bracket balance, the best two teams in the division have reached the final. Once again both teams have suffocating defenses. While I don’t expect the same absence of offense that we saw last year, points will still come at a premium. Both teams also enter with some questions at quarterback. UMHB has been nursing Jase Hammack’s shoulder through these playoffs and his primary backup — DeNerian Thomas — is questionable for Friday. On the other side D’Angelo Fulford has battled an ankle issue and inconsistency through these playoffs; enough so that the Purple Raiders turned almost exclusively to a running back direct snap package in the fourth quarter of their semifinal. The run defenses being deployed in this game will demand that these quarterbacks conjure a moment of two of brilliance, without backbreaking turnovers, for their teams to be successful. I expect this game to tilt on a big special teams play or a a turnover. Through these playoffs, the Crusaders have taken better care of the ball and, if there is one area of clear separation between these teams, it is the Cru’s kick return units. I’m going with the Crusaders to win their second title in a tight, thrilling ballgame. Mary Hardin-Baylor 20, Mount Union 16.

Kevin Niehus, Division III football analyst and former Thomas More quarterback

Arguably the top two defenses in the division, each facing an offense that put up video game numbers in their respective league. Throw that out: Both leagues were down this year. This game will be another defensive battle, like last year in Salem.   We have seen both teams prepare their version of the Wildcat for this game, with both having won titles by running some variation of it in past years.  I like Mount Union in this game, even though it’s a road game.   They are disciplined enough to keep UMHB WR’s AND kick returners out of the end zone. We have all seen the highlights, Simms runs 90 yards faster than most humans run the 40. I like that Mount Union has a QB in Fulford who has been in an intense spotlight for the past 56 weeks.  He can erase a lot of the questioning on Friday night, and I guarantee he knows that. I just feel like he makes one more play – and that’s all it will take to separate these two teams. One caveat: Mount Union must play clean: No personal fouls and no procedure penalties. If I’m Vince Kehres I’m confident in my players to play fast, make physical mistakes not mental ones.   Mount Union 13, Mary Hardin-Baylor 10.

Eric Drennan, Temple Daily Telegram Sports Editor

Both teams have high-scoring offenses, stingy defenses and quality coaching staffs, so this game is a toss-up that could be decided in three areas. First: If Mount Union can shut down UMHB’s rushing attack like it did last year and free up a Purple Raiders defense with 67 sacks to pin its ears back and go after the passer, then I like Mount Union’s chances. If the Crusaders can have some balance on offense, they might have the upper hand because of their playmakers on the outside. Second: If Mount Union quarterback D’Angelo Fulford is able to consistently make plays with his legs when UMHB drops into pass coverage, the Purple Raiders have the edge. The Crusaders have to keep Fulford in the pocket. A QB who is dangerous on the run will give any defense fits. Mount Union has one. UMHB doesn’t. Third: I think UMHB has the advantage when it comes to special teams, specifically the return game. Aaron Sims and K.J. Miller can turn a game around because they’re threats to score anytime they get the ball in space. All of that being said, of course I’m picking UMHB. The people in this football-crazy state would find a tall tree and a short rope if I didn’t. I’ll say UMHB 24, Mount Union 21 in what will seem like an absolute scorefest after the last two Stagg Bowls.
Mary Hardin-Baylor 24, Mount Union 21

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Around the Nation Podcast 231: Breaking down the semifinals

Same faces in a new place, as Mount Union and Mary Hardin-Baylor will head down to Shenandoah, Texas, this week. Keith was in Alliance and Pat was in Belton to cover the semifinals and give their take on their game, plus everything surrounding the two semifinal games.

Plus, we brought in a guest to help us talk more X’s and O’s and break down each side of the ball for Mount Union and Mary Hardin-Baylor. And Pat and Keith also take a look at the seasons Johns Hopkins and UW-Whitewater had, and see where they now fit in the national picture after semifinal defeats.

Pat and Keith talk about it all in the latest D3football.com Around the Nation Podcast.

The D3football.com Around the Nation Podcast is a regular conversation between Pat Coleman and Keith McMillan and guests covering the wide range of Division III football.

Hit play, or subscribe to get this podcast on your mobile device.
Full episode:

You can subscribe to the Around the Nation Podcast in Apple Podcasts, and many other places. You can also get this and any of our future Around the Nation podcasts automatically by subscribing to this RSS feed: http://www.d3blogs.com/d3football/?feed=podcast

Link: Our full NCAA playoff coverage

Photo: DeAngelo Fulford of Mount Union and Markeith Miller of Mary Hardin-Baylor. (Photos by Robert B. Forbes, Joe Fusco, d3photography.com)

Theme music: DJmentos.

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Quick Hits: Predicting the semifinals

With three Purple Powers and the newcomers in blue, we have a slightly different look to our national semifinals. Or, if you prefer, playing the role of the Wesley Wolverines in this year’s Week 15, we have the Johns Hopkins Blue Jays. Hopefully we get two great games that will be great examples of Division III football to the audience on ESPN3, but our panelists will let you know below how likely that is.

Enough with the pleasantries. Here’s our takes:

— Pat Coleman (photo of Mount Union’s Josh Petruccelli and Justin Hill by ohiosi.com)

The Quick Hits
playoff crew:

keith-mcmillan-150x200
Keith McMillan
ryan-tipps-150x200
Ryan Tipps
Pat Coleman
Pat Coleman
Adam Turer
Adam Turer
Frank Rossi
Frank Rossi
Guest
Greg Thomas

Johns Hopkins (12-1) at Mount Union (13-0), 12 p.m. ET, ESPN3

Keith: The Blue Jays will win over a lot of hearts by playing fast, fearlessly and having fun with an opportunity that scares other teams out of their cleats. These Purple Raiders, especially if hobbled, aren’t unbeatable, but they are opportunistic defensively and deep enough offensively to play whatever kind of game is necessary to win. Mount Union has just 13 turnovers through 13 games, including only two INTs thrown by QB D’Angelo Fulford, and  to win, Johns Hopkins is going to need to generate either turnovers or a ton of offense against an elite defense. Mount Union 35, Johns Hopkins 24.

Ryan: Mount doesn’t get challenged on the field very often, but I think JHU is peaking at just the right time to make this game a fun one to watch. Hopkins leads the nation in offense and has the right kind of multi-dimensional attack, led by quarterback David Tammaro, that will keep Mount alert for the full 60 minutes. As I said in my feature this week: “To defend against Hopkins, it’s a pick-your-poison scenario: Stack the box, and the Jays will pick you apart downfield; play on your heels, and they’ll get you in the gut.” So far in the playoffs, Hopkins has matched up well against its opponents, but nobody truly matches up easily against Mount Union, so JHU being able to adjust their strategy on the fly will be the main ingredient to keeping Mount from running away with the game, as they’re apt to do any week of the year (they are No. 1 for a reason). Mount Union 31, Johns Hopkins 21.

Pat: I know that on the podcast we call the UWW/UMHB matchup the better matchup, but this is just as intriguing to me. We think we’ve never seen Johns Hopkins playing this well, and the Blue Jays have been in the ballpark against Division III football’s elite in the past. Mount Union hasn’t fired on every cylinder against big opponents. If Muhlenberg was within 14 points late in the game, could Johns Hopkins be the same? David Tammaro at quarterback gives JHU a quality weapon behind center and if D’Angelo Fulford isn’t at 100 percent, or doesn’t have both Justin Hill and Jared Ruth, Tammaro may be the best quarterback on the field. (And maybe this scenario sees Josh Petruccelli take a lot of snaps). For entertainment purposes, I hope it’s entertaining enough in the fourth quarter. Mount Union 28, Johns Hopkins 24.

Adam: Johns Hopkins boasts the best, most complete offense that Mount Union will have faced this season. David Tammaro will not be intimidated by the moment. If Tyler Messinger is healthy, Tammaro will have a deep backfield behind him to complement the depth of the wide receiver corps. The Blue Jays will try to spread the field and open up the middle for Messinger and Stuart Walters. Because the JHU offense goes sideline to sideline, the Blue Jays will hope that Mount Union’s defense might wear down. The starters have rarely had to compete for four quarters in a game this season. Maybe that will allow the Blue Jays and their nation-best offense (564.4 yards per game) to put pressure on the hosts in the fourth quarter. But Hopkins hasn’t faced a defense like the Purple Raiders. Louis Berry and Gabe Brown are shutdown corners, eager to make a big play and get the ball back in the Mount Union offense’s hands. It’s not easy to spread out or wear down a defense that has such speed and quickness up the middle with Danny Robinson, Trey Williams, Nick Brish, and Austin White. Even if the Blue Jays are able to move the ball effectively, they won’t be able to break the big plays that it would take to upset Mount Union. I think it will be close and the Blue Jays will put up some points, but it won’t be enough to escape Alliance with a win. Mount Union 35, Johns Hopkins 26.

Frank: This game plays out similar to the game Mount Union won against Muhlenberg — a somewhat sluggish chess match will develop early, but by the middle of the third quarter, the size and speed differences for Mount Union will begin to show through for separation on the scoreboard.  Take nothing away from Johns Hopkins — they have bounced back with authority since the Susquehanna loss this year.  To me, this is the epitome of “sometimes you need a bad loss to lead you to good wins,” and they keep growing as a team.  Like last week, they have to play turnover-free football to have a chance in this game.  But they also need to establish the run to enable David Tammaro to be effective.  A team like Mount Union possesses linebackers that can both spy on Tammaro to take away his run and drop back into coverage on pass plays — their versatility at that position will hamper the Hopkins “Plan C” of letting Tammaro tuck and run.  Because of this, the game will be truly won at the line of scrimmage because the run will be key for both teams, especially in the first half. Mount Union 40, Johns Hopkins 20.

Greg: The Blue Jays have been on the same field with Mount Union just two years ago and more than held their own. There are a lot of new faces on both sides in this matchup, but that experience does take away the first-timers-against-Mount-Union narrative that we’re usually fond of. Both teams are better versions of their 2016 selves. Purple Raider health is an issue, particularly at the skill positions on offense. Can the Petro-cat work for extended periods of time this week? I don’t think the Purple Raiders care to find out. Johns Hopkins has a dynamic offense that can put up some points on Mount Union. Blue Jay quarterback David Tammaro and his cohorts are probably going to need to find 30 points to have a chance. Like the 2016 contest, I see Johns Hopkins pushing Mount Union to the limit, but coming up just a tad short. Mount Union 31, Johns Hopkins 24.

UW-Whitewater (12-0) at Mary Hardin-Baylor (13-0), 2:30 CT, ESPN3

UMHB logoKeith: Some Cru backers like to complain about UMHB having to face the toughest road to the Stagg Bowl. But it’s a blessing in disguise, because after beating No. 7 Hardin-Simmons twice and No. 3 St. John’s last week, what’s a game against No. 5 but another test? UMHB has never beaten UW-Whitewater, and this year’s editions are mirror images, down to each averaging 6 yards per carry and allowing 2.1. Something’s got to give, so watch the line play and the tackling for a clue. Ultimately, a UW-Whitewater secondary that’s allowed a stack of big pass plays in the playoffs might get burned for another one, deciding another weird-score matchup of these purple powers. Mary Hardin-Baylor 23, UW-Whitewater 19.

UMHB logoRyan: Last week I was a bit soft on UW-Whitewater — this week, I was close to shifting gears and predicting a renewed UMU/UWW Stagg Bowl. However, UW-W’s quarterfinal 1-9 passing stat line, with an interception, is a hard one to overlook. Against UMHB, Whitewater isn’t going to be able to jump out to the kind of lead that it did against Bethel, thus controlling the clock and pounding the rock for the remainder of the game. It will need to be able to successfully complete passes and find innovative ways to move the ball. UMHB has four All-Region guys in its line and linebacking corps, so the run game isn’t going to be as effective. The Cru, on the other hand, has a good number of offensive weapons and should be able to find ways to pick apart the Warhawk D. Mary Hardin-Baylor 28, UW-Whitewater 20.

UMHB logoPat: I’m going to provide the alternate scenario from the one where Mary Hardin-Baylor wins a low-scoring game. Suppose, if you will, that Jase Hammack is still bothered by his late-game injury from the quarterfinals. Suppose that De’Nerian Thomas is not quite as capable of moving the offense and testing the Warhawks pass defense the same way that St. Norbert did. Suppose the Cru turn the ball over a couple of times (see Mary Hardin-Baylor vs. Hardin-Simmons, Oct. 6). At this point, you’re probably thinking I’m setting you up for a UWW pick, but I’m not. Even in this scenario, I still think the Cru have a path to victory. Thomas would be similar but more athletic than the quarterback UWW faced last week. Markeith Miller is in the same boat. The UWW defense will certainly keep Miller from running all over the yard, but that probably won’t be enough, although it might take a special teams score to win it. Mary Hardin-Baylor 17, UW-Whitewater 13.

UMHB logoAdam: Defense, defense, and more defense. Two of the nation’s top scoring defenses will grind out a slugfest down in Texas. The Cru want to make the Warhawks one-dimensional and force Cole Wilber to beat them. Similarly, the Warhawks want to slow Markeith Miller and force a banged-up Jase Hammack or an inexperienced DeNerian Thomas to air it out. I expect the Cru’s game plan will feature a methodical pace, with the offense content to win the field position battle rather than press for big plays. The defense was exposed by Jackson Erdmann last week, but was able to force turnovers to seal the victory. The Cru allowed just 47 rushing yards to St. John’s. If they can get an early lead and force the Warhawks to throw the ball more than 15 times in an effort to catch up, the home team will have the advantage. If Whitewater is able to get the lead early, the rushing attack of Ronny Ponick and Alex Peete will try to wear down one of the nation’s top defenses. Mary Hardin-Baylor boasts the nation’s top turnover margin, and the Cru may need to come up with another big takeaway to decide what should be a low-scoring, tightly contested semifinal classic. Mary Hardin-Baylor 14, UW-Whitewater 9.

UMHB logoFrank: I expect a close one from start to finish, especially with the ball hawks we’ve seen all season in the UMHB defense. It seemed last week that the weakness defensively for the Cru would be a potent passing attack, but even in that situation, they still pulled in turnovers. Cole Wilber is not Jackson Erdmann — he is a very good quarterback, but the likelihood of any UW-Whitewater passing attack being effective is much lower this week. On the flip side, the “pound the rock” mentality will balance time of possession and speed up this game for the Warhawks. They know a shootout would not work to their advantage — so expect them to play a possession game on offense while relying on their defense to force punts and turnovers to further help shorten the game. If the time of possession is not something to the effect of 35:00/25:00 in the Warhawks’ favor, the Cru will get a bus ticket to Shenandoah. Mary Hardin-Baylor 24, UW-Whitewater 14.

Greg: The Crusaders have taken over as Mount Union’s primary December foil, but these Warhawks are back in the semis and looking to reclaim their spot in the Stagg Bowl. Despite eye-popping numbers throughout much of the season, UMHB’s extraordinary offense has once again looked very ordinary in these playoffs. Offensively, the Warhawks have settled into a familiar rock-pounding rhythm. Both defenses are absolutely suffocating and, as if they needed the help, should be aided by a strong winds at Crusader Stadium on Saturday. This one has all the makings of a defensive slugfest where turnovers and a special teams play may spell the difference. It took a pair of long touchdown passes for UMHB to get by St. John’s in the quarterfinal and the Crusaders may not find that same luck this week. The Warhawks may upset a lot of people from Indianapolis to suburban Houston this weekend, but they don’t really care. UW-Whitewater 15, Mary Hardin-Baylor 13.

We invite you to add your predictions in the comments below. Download the Around the Nation podcast on Mondays and Fridays.