Triple Take: Stagg Bowl XL

Photos by Ryan Coleman,

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It’s not the two teams we’re used to, but it’s still a purple party.

This is the St. Thomas football team’s first trip to Salem, and though Mount Union is a fixture there, the players on this squad have never gotten to hoist the Walnut and Bronze.

The game is Friday night and under the lights in Virginia. Pat Coleman, Keith McMillan and Ryan Tipps are joined by a few extra voices for the final Triple Take of the season. Last week’s TT post had a whopping 94 comments, which was awesome. Chime in in the comments area below, and be sure to use the #d3fb hashtag (as well as #stagg) if you’re posting about the game on Twitter.

The Stagg Bowl is being broadcast at 7 p.m. Friday on ESPNU. Put the TV on mute and listen to the better/more accurate/more insightful broadcast that Coleman and McMillan will provide, and be sure to catch Tipps and Frank Rossi during the pregame show, which includes the unveiling of the All-America team. And after the Stagg Bowl, there’ll be a postgame show as well as writeups on both the winning and losing teams.

Pat and Keith also gave their pregame thoughts (kept it under 10 minutes!):

On to our picks:

Pat Coleman, executive editor and publisher
Mount Union 35, St. Thomas 17

I don’t know how many points experience is worth in a Stagg Bowl, and I don’t know how many points playing Mount Union for the first time is worth. I know they are both generally worth something, though I know they count for something. Sometimes, though, I look at a game featuring Mount Union and can’t envision a scenario in which the Purple Raiders can lose. That’s not the case here. St. Thomas has the talent and speed on defense to limit the Mount Union running game, at least from its running backs. The question in my mind is whether they can contain Mount Union quarterback Kevin Burke when he pulls it down and runs. The other thing St. Thomas will need to do is get enough pressure up front to not give Burke time to find his receivers. The problem is, he’s got multiple top receiver options to throw to, and the odds of the Tommies back seven covering all those guys and containing the run just seem long to me. On the reverse side, St. Thomas has a lot of good receivers but no great receiver as of yet. They have a pretty good freshman running back with good field vision and an offensive line that has been successful this season but is also pretty young. They also have a quarterback who is of similar style to the one Mount Union sees every day in practice. In my mind, it adds up to a Mount Union win. Perhaps not one in which St. Thomas gets blown off the field, but a win nonetheless.

Keith McMillan, managing editor and national columnist
Mount Union 27, St. Thomas 13

The only thing I think I think about this game, having picked a few coaches’ brains here in Salem, is that we aren’t primed for an offensive shootout. Sure it’s a short week prep-wise, and at least one of the teams was practicing this week before its game plan was finished. Mount Union and St. Thomas are each built on outstanding defenses and great O-lines, so as you watch the game, you’ll have to break your normal habit of following the ball, and watch from the lines out if you want to figure out what’s really happening. That’s my plan, and I expect to see two defenses making it hard on the other to run the ball, which means the matchups on the outside might be the only place where an offense can gain a consistent advantage. If Junior Collins, Chris Denton, Julius Moore and Shannon Stewart outplay their counterparts in the St. Thomas secondary, and Kevin Burke is his usual self, Mount Union takes home championship No. 11.

Ryan Tipps, senior editor and former mid-Atlantic columnist
Mount Union 34, St. Thomas 17

This year is four years in the making for this group of Purple Raiders seniors. No other team has lost three Stagg Bowls in a row, and it’s not likely a team will lose four in a row any time soon. A few weeks ago, a Mount fan on the message boards (apologies, I forget who) noted that for many years, the Purple Raiders were so offense-heavy that they were able to win games despite the holes they had on defense. Now, in turn, they’re winning because of the defense. I agree. Though Mount has been at the top of my ballot all year, I saw a lingering question mark because the run game was so unclear. And national championship teams have typically been led by the iconic names like Kmic, Beaver and Coppage. Mount didn’t have that feature coming into the season — but that didn’t matter. The surprise emergence of Kevin Burke, the stellar downfield threats, and most of all, the defense have made the Purple Raiders into a championship team – even if the mold breaks tradition. To be sure, St. Thomas is not exactly the neat little packet of expectations this season either. In the first week of Triple Take, I wondered aloud how a team could graduate its starting quarterback and All-Americans at running back and wide receiver and still expect to be able to hang with the best. The Tommies showed just how to make that happen, and they’ve certainly earned their way to Salem. But they are newcomers on Mount Union’s “other” home turf. It’ll be interesting for a quarter and maybe even at the half, but the Purple Raiders will pour it on after the break.

Frank Rossi, broadcaster
Mount Union 34, St. Thomas 21

I actually believe these teams present a great matchup under normal circumstances with balance and depth that are second-to-none in Division III. With that said, there is no way to “practice” for Stagg Bowl week in Salem. The pomp and circumstance of the Gagliardi Trophy dinner, the “Spotlight on Champions” dinner, the interviews and the travel itself can take a newcomer by surprise — including yours truly four years ago when I first partook in all of the above. The Raiders are used to these aspects of the game; the Tommies are not. When kickoff comes Friday, I foresee some flatness in St. Thomas because of this first-time encounter with such a whirlwind week — and that’s a no-no when playing against a team that plays from ahead as well as any team in the land. An attempted UST rally falls short, and the Mount wins going away, avoiding the mistakes from six days earlier.

Adam Turer, mid-Atlantic columnist
Mount Union 38, St. Thomas 20

The Purple Raiders are on a mission and appear more focused than any team we’ve seen in recent years. More importantly, they are playing with a confidence that allowed them to rally from 14 down in the fourth quarter last week in their first true late-game test. If this team can defeat Mary Hardin-Baylor despite five turnovers, I don’t see how St. Thomas or any other team in the country can beat them. Kevin Burke is wise beyond his years and benefits from a veteran offensive line and wide receivers. The running back committee has been steadily improving and just needs to take better care of the football this week. St. Thomas has its own overachieving sophomore quarterback in Matt O’Connell. The Tommies also have a formidable defense that will be capable of slowing the Purple Raiders in the early going. I expect a low halftime score with most of the points put up in the second half, once each offensive line wears down the opposing defense. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Tommies defense rise to the challenge early in the game and set up an early score, giving St. Thomas the early lead. I just don’t see a defense led by seniors Charles Dieuseul and Nick Driskill allowing this opportunity to slip away. Chris Denton will be a factor on special teams for Mount Union. I don’t expect him to break a big return, but I expect his presence to force St. Thomas into short directional punts and give Mount Union the advantage in field position. Mount Union’s senior class will finally get its ring, capping off an already enjoyable season for head coach Larry Kehres. The Purple Raiders will reward their head coach for trusting in his players by bringing the Walnut & Bronze back to Alliance.

Jeffrey Zupanic, Mount Union beat writer for the Alliance Review
Mount Union 49, St. Thomas 14

The numbers suggest that picking Mount Union is the safe way to go in 2012. First, there’s the possibility of this year’s seniors being the first class since 1989 not to win a national championship ring, and they are far too talented for that to happen. Secondly, it is still mind-blowing to know that Mount Union turned the ball over five times and had two other possession end without points (bad snap on third down and unsuccessful fake punt) yet still scored 48 points in a national semifinal game against the No. 2 team in the country. The defense was as stout as it has been all year despite giving up the 35 points to UMHB (all of which came off turnovers). The Purple Raiders allowed 165 yards on those four possessions (one was a pick-six) while giving up just 110 yards to the Crusaders on their other 12 possessions. Lastly, there’s the “getting to know Mount Union” factor as I like to call it. Since 1992, the Purple Raiders are 29-2 against first-time opponents in the postseason — UW-LaCrosse in 1992 and Mary Hardin-Baylor in 2004 are the lone winners — and in that span they have scored 50+ points 12 times while giving up less than 10 points 12 times. Teams usually have not fared well against Mount Union the first time they play them with just 2 teams keeping the final margin within single digits (Trinity in 1998 and Bridgewater in 2001). This Mount Union team has been playing on a different level — even by Mount Union standards — all season long. They need just 14 points to become the most prolific offensive team in NCAA history (breaking the record set by the 2007 Purple Raiders). The Purple Raiders explosive offense will be celebrating under the exploding fireworks on Friday night.

Ross Schreck, sports editor
Mount Union 21 St. Thomas 13

This season, St. Thomas has had to overcome numerous adversities. Whether it was the improbable 11-point come from behind victory with four minutes to go at UW-Eau Claire, or overcoming myriad injuries, this Tommie team has answered every question its been asked. The toughest question, however, is this Friday. Having covered this team since day one, St. Thomas’ success is predicated upon its defense’s ability to thwart the opposition’s running game and forcing opposing offenses out of their normal grooves. The key to Friday’s game boils down to the Tommies’ ability to slow down the prolific Mount Union offense and create turnovers. Last weekend, the Purple Raiders were uncharacteristically poor holding on to the football, giving up five turnovers to UMHB. The Tommie offense feeds off the momentum created by its defense and its special teams — just ask Elmhurst and UW-Oshkosh. Offensively, St. Thomas must stick to its solid running game and dominate time of possession. Although I do believe this game will be competitive, and after watching three Purple Raider games from different points in the year, Mount Union’s offense will likely prove too strong for the Tommie defense. Still, this is a very young Tommie team and the experience they receive from this trip to the national championship will prove immeasurable for years to come.