It’s tempting at this point to think with our hearts and not our heads. Nobody except UW-Whitewater and Mount Union fans would object to seeing some fresh faces in Salem, whether it be one team or two. And there have been times in the past where it looked like the other semifinalists could hang (St. Thomas and Wesley in 2011) and they couldn’t, and times when they could (like last year’s one-point wins over Mary Hardin-Baylor and North Central).
Truth be told, the past two years, the semifinal round has been better than the Stagg Bowl that followed, at least from an entertainment standpoint. But no matter what happens this Saturday, onlookers should be entertained. Linfield is inspired by the loss of a teammate and crisscrossing the country like 1999 Pacific Lutheran. UW-Whitewater coach Lance Leipold is heading off to take over a D-I program, and all of D-III has a vested interest in how he does. He’s just trying for a sixth national title before he and half the coaching staff depart. Wesley’s in its sixth semifinal and is just dying to break through to Salem. Mount Union is trying to avenge a 52-14 thrashing by UW-W in last year’s Stagg Bowl, with one of the great quarterbacks in D-III history at the controls.
Whether it’s the same ol’ twosome, the Salem surprises or some combination of both, there’s reason to watch. Publisher Pat Coleman, national columnist Ryan Tipps and I forecast Saturday’s games. We don’t consult with each other on the picks, and don’t get anything for being right. (For picking the wrong team, we get grief). If nothing else, here are three thoughts on how Saturday could go. And at least one wish for the semifinals to live up to the past few.
– Keith McMillan
WESLEY (12-1) at MOUNT UNION (13-0), Noon ET
Keith’s take: By now, you know the story of last season’s quarterfinal in Alliance: Mount Union takes a 31-0 lead, Wesley scores 59 points from there but falls three short. That was last year, but it plays a role on Saturday. Forget being intimdated by The Machine. The Wolverines know they can outplay the Purple Raiders, at least for a portion of the game. That makes Saturday’s clash intriguing from the start. Mount Union is as prolific and mistake-free as always, and thanks to John Carroll, more tested in tight games against high-caliber opponents than they often are at this point. Expect a better day from both defenses, but the key is whether Aamir Petrose, Payton Rose, Roderick Caine and Brenton Barnes can do anything against the Purple Raiders’ offensive line. We’ve seen Mount Union O-lines own highly-touted Wesley D-linemen in the past, but it’s particularly key here because the Wolverines’ secondary can actually match up with Mount Union’s wide receivers, and the Purple Raiders running game could be slowed down but UMU QB Kevin Burke is dangerous with time to throw. Burke can also spark the running game himself, so Wesley needs to keep him bottled up. If Wesley LB Sosthene Kaepepula keeps his emotions in check and plays his best game, and the Mount Union defense can’t force a handful of Joe Callahan turnovers, this can go Wesley’s way, on one condition. The Wolverines better have a two-score lead or the ball last. If Burke gets the final possession and the Purple Raiders are tied or within seven, they’re winning. Wesley 34, Mount Union 27.
Ryan’s take: I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little tempted to go the other way with this pick. However, Mount doesn’t have an obvious vulnerability to justify picking against them right now. There are signs, though, that Wesley will be even more able to compete with Mount this season than the Wolverines have been in years past. Thanks to clear skies expected Saturday in Alliance, some big plays are possible with both teams lining up first-team All-Region quarterbacks under center and them having stud targets to throw to. That could jack up the score and make for a lot of excitement in what should otherwise be a worthy defensive effort for the two teams. Defenses built around Kapepula, Rose and Bender or Kocheff, Lally and Spencer, among a host of others, might get exploited for a big play here and there, but they won’t break. They never break. That’s what makes them so consistently good. This will be a thrilling game to watch, and each team will need to produce its best game of the season if it hopes to suit up next weekend in Salem. Mount Union 38, Wesley 33.
Pat’s take: I consider this a reprise of last year’s game, but better played, on both ends. I suspect Wesley might not give up a 67-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage. Or cough up the ball on the 23. Or throw a pick-six, all in the first quarter. And Mount Union won’t let Joe Callahan throw eight touchdown passes or throw for 633 yards. Both of these defenses should be better than last year. The Mount Union offense has more weapons to choose from throwing the ball but the run game might be more banged up than last season. We can throw out the usual intimidation factor as Wesley is no stranger to Mount Union or the national semifinals. Wesley has played in front of more people and has faced a tougher opponent, I think, in Charlotte. But in the end, Mount Union is still the machine, and being down one running back or so isn’t going to be a big deal for a team with as much depth as the Purple Raiders have. Mount Union 38, Wesley 35.
LINFIELD (11-1) at UW-WHITEWATER (13-0), 2:30 CT
Keith’s take: If you’ve read the features on the site this week, you saw how both defenses were highlighted. And if you are a regular with us this time of year, you know we tend to say things like “line play makes all the difference this deep in the postseason.” That’s still true here, and it’s hard to project, but after watching a relentless Linfield defensive line rough up Widener last week, the Warhawks should have their hands full up front. UW-Whitewater can’t afford to wait until the fourth quarter to get a spark on offense this week. Sam Riddle and the Wildcats’ offense should put up some points, especially with Warhawks CB Marcus McLin expected to be out. Linfield led 17-0 at Perkins Stadium last season before UW-W scored the final four TDs of the game. The Wildcats have already beaten a Whitewater-quality team this postseason in UMHB. I could be getting sentimental with my pick because of Linfield’s story following the Parker Moore tragedy, but UW-W’s shaky performance against Wartburg cast doubt on their ability to give Lance Leipold a story book sendoff. Going against the defending champs isn’t as outlandish at it seems. The Wildcats, in their fourth try, finally get the UW-W monkey off their backs. Linfield 29, UW-Whitewater 27.
Ryan’s take: Consider this a nod to Linfield’s rise the past few weeks to “own it” this postseason: the growth out of the regular-season defeat, the heartbreak and motivation over the death of Parker Moore, the long road trips, the dominance in Belton and the doubters across the nation that come with a “mere” No. 10 ranking. No, this isn’t a pick rooted in not wanting to see the Warhawks in Salem for the ninth time in 10 years or having any ill will toward Lance Leipold for moving to a new level in his coaching career. In fact, this pick has as little to do with Whitewater as it possibly can in a situation like this. The Warhawks are a great team that showed last weekend and several times throughout the season their will to win and their ability to put together something spectacular to make that happen. But the Wildcats, right now with what they’ve accomplished, are playing more spectacularly. The young quarterback, the senior wide receiver, the veteran offensive line and the impassioned defense are playing better than they have all season. It’s a recipe for an upset against the defending national champions. Linfield 28, UW-Whitewater 27.
Pat’s take: Against my better judgment here, perhaps. Linfield has been riding a wave of success and emotion the past five weeks and that is difficult to ignore. Meanwhile, the emotion may have been a detriment for Whitewater this past weekend. But Whitewater has trailed early against Linfield before, like it trailed Wartburg last week. Perhaps they have one more comeback in them, the drive to get one more title for Lance Leipold, Brian Borland and co., not to mention a senior class that is playing for its third title. (Each of the past four senior classes at Whitewater has left with three national championships.) Frankly, I feel Linfield is more talented, but believe the Warhawks will find a way to edge this out. Whether that is home field, better coaching, just a hair more experience in big games, or a combination of the three, I go with UW-Whitewater 31, Linfield 30.