NCAA Division-III Football Playoffs
No. 3 St. Thomas Tommies
No. 1 Mount Union Purple Raiders (14-0)
On Friday night in Salem, Virginia, the No. 1 ranked Mount Union Purple Raiders will take on the No. 3 St. Thomas Tommies in the championship game of Division-III football. This contest is a rematch of the 2012 title game that saw Mount Union win handily, 28-10.
The Purple Raiders enter the contest looking for their 12th National Championship. Their 11 titles ranks them No. 1 all time, with their most recent title coming from that 2012 victory. St. Thomas has never won the National Championship before and this is their second trip to the championship game.
Both teams enter the tilt with high-octane offenses and bone-crushing defenses. Mount Union has the No. 1 scoring offense in the country, with St. Thomas coming in at No. 2. In total offense the Purple Raiders come in at No. 3 and St. Thomas at No. 5. Both teams are equally as impressive on defense. Mount Union, again, comes in No. 1 in least points allowed with St. Thomas close being in the No. 2 spot. In total defense Mount Union is No. 1 with St. Thomas coming in at No. 3. On paper this game has everything that should make this one of the most exciting championship games ever.
How They Got Here:
The St. Thomas Tommies dominated the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC), posting a perfect 10-0 regular season record. They were a juggernaut on offense all season, scoring at least 51-points in seven contests and holding their opponents under 10 in all but three of those games. Star running back Jordan Roberts powered the offense, leading the country in rushing touchdowns heading into the playoffs.
In Round 1 of the NCAA Division-III playoffs, the Tommies took on Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Champion La Verne. St. Thomas took control of this game early, jumping out to a 21-0 lead heading into half behind two touchdowns by Roberts. The Tommies would eventually win 57-14, as quarterback John Gould threw for 310-yards and 2-scores, and TE Charlie Dowdle and WR Nick Waldvogel both gained over 100-yards receiving.
In Round 2, St. Thomas took on MIAC rival St. John’s. Again, the Tommies jumped out to a big lead, taking a 22-0 advantage behind two touchdowns by Roberts. The Tommies downed St. John’s 38-19 as the St. Thomas defense simply smothered the Johnnies offense. The defense allowed just 260-yards of offense, sacked the quarterback three times, and recorded two interceptions.
In Round 3, No. 7 Wabash came to St. Paul, and received much of the same kind of treatment that the Tommies previous opponents had received. Nick Waldvogel gave the Tommies a 7-0 lead when he returned a punt for a 48-yard touchdown. Gould’s 28-yard touchdown pass to Dowdle capped off a 98-yard drive, and St. Thomas jumped out to a 38-0 lead before the Little Giants were able to put points on the board. Dowdle finished with a touchdown reception and a touchdown run in the 38-7 win.
Last weekend No. 2 Linfield came to Minnesota and found the reception quite icy despite the warmer than normal temperatures. Roberts’ four-yard touchdown gave the Tommies the early lead, and Jack Kaiser followed with two touchdown runs to give St. Thomas the early 20-0 edge. The Tommies would extend the lead to 30-3 before Sam Riddle returned from a leg injury to engineer two scoring drives. St. Thomas would eventually win 38-17 as Roberts had 256-yards rushing on the ground and 3 touchdowns. The MIAC champs finished with 389-yards on the ground, and their defense recorded four sacks, forced four fumbles, and intercepted three passes. It was truly a performance for the ages.
The Mount Union Purple Raiders completed an undefeated season as well, winning the Ohio Athletic Conference after going 10-0. The Purple Raiders were dominant on both offense and defense, leading the country in both scoring defense and scoring offense. They also scored at least 51-points in seven different games, and allowed a total of 31-points during the regular season.
In the first round of the NCAA Division-III playoffs, Mount Union took on St. Lawrence. This game got out hand early, as the Purple Raiders jumped out to a 41-0 lead before winning 55-23. Logan Nemeth rushed for three-touchdowns and QB Taurice Scott ran for 171-yards on just nine carries.
In Round 2, Mount Union defeated No. 18 Albright, 66-7. The Purple Raiders got two early touchdowns from Nemeth and blocked a punt that they recovered for a score, enabling them to jump out to a 28-0 lead. The defense crushed the Albright offense, recording 11-sacks and holding them to a total of 172-yards.
In the third round the Purple Raiders took on No. 12 Wesley and, once again, grabbed the early lead. Three first quarter touchdowns gave Mount Union a 21-point edge, but the Wolverines scored two touchdowns to cut the lead to seven. Mount Union responded with four straight touchdowns and rolled to the 56-35 victory.
Last weekend Mount Union took on their nemesis, the Wisconsin-Whitewater Warhawks. The Warhawks had won the last five contests, and looked like they were going to pull this one out as well when they jumped out to an early 6-o lead. However, the Purple Raiders responded with 35 unanswered points on their way to the 35-6 win. Nemeth added two touchdown runs to go with 214-yards rushing. The defense dominated once again, sacking the quarterback three times and recording three interceptions.
Rankings: (National Rankings in Each Category Are in Parenthesis)
Mount Union Purple Raiders
Offense: Passing: 238.3 (76) Rushing: 317.6 (3) Total Offense: 555.9 (3) Points Per Game: 53.6 (1)
Defense: Passing: 143.8 (5) Rushing: 44.5 (1) Total Defense: 188.3 (1) Points Allowed Per Game: 7.5 (1)
St. Thomas Tommies
Offense: Passing: 271.4 (37) Rushing: 258.1 (16) Total Offense: 529.4 (5) Points Per Game: 52.5 (2)
Defense: Passing: 144.9 (7) Rushing: 88.7 (8) Total Defense: 226.6 (3) Points Allowed Per Game: 9.9 (2)
Note: The Purple Raiders players are listed first in each comparison
Quarterbacks: Taurice Scott vs. John Gould
Scott is one of the most dynamic players in all of Division-III football. With 3,139 passing yards and 800-yards on the ground he has clearly shown that he can beat opponents in a variety of ways. The Purple Raiders QB is the most dynamic offensive player in Division-III and can make plays in the pocket or while on the run. He will be the key for Mount Union.
John Gould is one of those guys that most people overlook, but he can beat any opponent on any Saturday. The senior is 17-1 since becoming the starting quarterback and is perfect for this offense. If the team needs him to throw he can put up big numbers, but if he is asked to just hand the ball off he is humble enough to do what the team needs to win.
Runnings Backs: Logan Nemeth vs. Jordan Roberts, Jack Kaiser
Eight playoff touchdowns has Nemeth on a historic run to the title game. His 27-touchdown runs are second only to Roberts and his 1,737-yards rushing ranks his fifth in the nation. Nemeth is a beast to try to pull down and he has great speed. He can carry the ball 30-plus times and still move the chains in large chunks.
Roberts is the nation’s leader in touchdown runs with 32 and he is third in rushing yards with 1,957. The junior is an unstoppable force, who came back from a shoulder injury the previous weekend to dominate last weekend’s contest against Linfield. Roberts is as tough between the tackles as it gets, and in the open field few will catch him.
Jack Kaiser has been able to spell Roberts to keep him fresh and he still gets the job done. The senior has 10-touchdowns and 405-yards rushing.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: Roman Namdar, Jordan Hargrove, Tim Kennedy, Lane Clark vs. Nick Waldvogel, Charlie Dowdle, Jack Gilliland, Ryan Bradley
Mount Union has an incredible running attack which is set up by their deep receiving corps. They start four wide outs to stretch defenses. This group is not just made of decoys, however. They are outstanding and can make big plays. Both Kennedy and Namdar are top flight receivers. Both went over 900-yards receiving, with Kennedy gaining 978 and Namdar 976. Kennedy is the possession guy, making 80-receptions, while Namdar is the guy that Scott looks for when he wants a big play. The senior has an impressive 16.5 yards per catch average and he is third in the country with 19-touchdown catches. As if those two aren’t enough of a challenge, Hargrove is tough to matchup against as well (704-yards, 7 TDs) and Clark has good hands and blocks exceptionally well.
Waldvogel is the guy that can do it all. Catch passes, take the ball on a reverse, run out of the backfield, return punts. He is just a superstar who does whatever is asked of him. The junior leads the team with 64-receptions and has 798-yards receiving. Dowdle is the guy that teams somehow forget to scheme for or something. This is one of the two or three best tight ends in the country and he is a game changer. Dowdle leads the team in yards receiving (811), touchdowns (9), and he has an impressive 21.9 yards per catch average. The TE blocks well, and finds ways to make huge plays. He is incredibly difficult to defend. Gilliland and Bradley are deep threats for Gould.
Offensive Line: Mitch Doraty, Brooks Jenkins, Tyler Baker, Matt Fitchet vs. Richie Donovan, Zach Brennan, David Simmet, Will Hilbert, Stefan Sauer
Mount Union has a very athletic line that is smart and physical. They are not a huge group, but they block well, and are quick to react to various blitzes. This is a younger group with two sophomores, but they think on their feet and will make time for their quarterback and make holes for their runners.
When you have arguably the best running back in the country then the offensive line must be doing something right, and they are. This is huge group that starts with Simmet, who is 6-9, 350. The smallest player in this group is Hilbert at 6-5, 292. They clearly have the size to dominate this game.
Advantage: St. Thomas
Defensive Line: Durum Alarms, Mike Furda, Tom Lally, Mike Vidal vs. Ryan Winter, Anthony King-Foreman, Eric Sutton
This is arguably the best defensive line in the country and the matchup with the Tommies offensive line is going to be quite a battle. Lally is just a tackling machine who finds ways to make plays despite playing on the defensive line. He is second on the team in tackles (74) and leads the group in sacks with 18. Add to it Furda and his 11.5-sacks, and it is clear that these two ends are disrupters of the highest magnitude. Vidal and Alarms add 10.5 more sacks combined, making this a group that is fast, physical, and smart.
The Tommies cannot match this group. They have three outstanding linemen in Winter, King-Foreman and Sutton, but they are not the game changers that Mount Union has. However, the group is great at tying up offensive linemen so that their linebackers can make plays. King-Foreman leads the group in sacks with 7.5 and is a physical player with great instincts. Winter adds 6.5-sacks and is a great nose guard. Add in Sutton (5-sacks) and this is a group that is as solid as they come.
Advantage: Mount Union
Linebackers: Hank Spencer, Jonathan Gonell vs. Tim McClanahan, Jesse Addo, Alex Seering, Steve Harrell
Because of the scheme that Mount Union uses there are only two primary linebackers. Gonell is a playmaker who finds ways to get involved in plays. He is third on the team in tackles (68) and adds 3.5-sacks. He is clearly at his best playing close to the line. Spencer is a quick player with great instincts. He is fourth on the team in tackles (62).
This St. Thomas group is special and it starts with Harrell. The sophomore is really grasping the Tommies scheme and it is showing in his play. Harrell leads the team in tackles (84) and adds 8-sacks. Leading the team in sacks is Addo (8.5), who can get after the quarterback or drop back in pass protection. He has forced four fumbles this season. McClanahan is quick and plays the run exceptionally well, and Seering has great lateral movement and technique.
Advantage: St. Thomas
Defensive Backs: Tre Jones, Louis Berry, Will Hiteshue, Nick Rodriguez, Alex Kocheff vs. Trace Adams, Jordan Young, Isaac Seering, Mozus Ikuenobe
In a game that is going to have some of the best defensive players in the country, Kocheff stands out the most. The safety has great instincts and is a complete play-maker. Rodriguez leads the team with three picks, and is a great cover guy. The group really plays well within this scheme, and each player has the skills to defend the run, tackle in the open field, or cover a receiver.
The Tommies also have a quality secondary that makes plays. Young has 4-interceptions and Seering is a physical safety that isn’t afraid to take on any running back coming his way. He is incredible along the line, but can also cover down field with exceptional skill. Ikuenobe covers like he is the intended receiver.
The Purple Raiders special teams is a solid but not spectacular group. Jake Antel is 11-16 on field goals with a long of 44. The team averages 21.5 per kick return and 9.7 yards per punt return.
Special teams is a trademark of Coach Glenn Caruso. This is where his team really sucks the life out of opponents because they are so skilled as a group and are great at the trick plays. Waldvogel has the speed to break a punt return for a touchdown, as he did against Wabash, and Gilliland is a speedster who gives his team great field position. Paul Graupner is 8-12 on field goals.
Advantage: St. Thomas
Coaches: Vince Kehres vs. Glenn Caruso
Coach Kehres is in his third season at Mount Union and he is 42-2 in that time and making his third trip to the National Title game. This is a school steeped in tradition for excellence, and he has taken that tradition to an even higher level. The Coach is brilliant and really knows how to motivate young men.
Coach Caruso is building quite a legacy of his own. He is 86-13 in eight seasons at the school and this will be his 100th game as the Head Coach of the Tommies. This is his second trip to the finals. No coach is better at exploiting a team’s weaknesses and his handling of the special teams is making him a legend in his own time.
Outlook: This is a battle of the two best teams in the country. Not only have they both proven that on the field, but the statistics and the records back that up as well. The two are very evenly matched up. Both Mount Union and St. Thomas prefer to run the football and have great success with it, but they both have the skill players to throw if they need to. The defenses are outstanding and they have great skill players on both sides of the ball. The difference is that the Tommies have the superior special teams. I think that is the difference in the game. Take St. Thomas to win 27-24.
By Robert Pannier