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 D3football.com 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
Pat Coleman, D3football.com 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
Keith McMillan, D3football.com 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
Ryan Tipps, D3football.com 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
Adam Turer, D3football.com 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
Frank Rossi, D3football.com 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
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
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
Kevin 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.