On Saturday, the No. 1 ranked Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders will take on the No. 5 ranked University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Titans in the NCAA Division-III football championship in Salem, VA. The winner of this contest will win their school’s first football championship. UW-Oshkosh has never played in the title game and this will be the second trip for the Crusaders. They lost to Linfield in 2004, 28-21.
This should be a very exciting matchup, as both teams have incredible offenses and defenses that are quite stingy when it comes to giving up both points and yards. There is also plenty of star talent to like in this game, as some of the best players in Division-III will be appearing in this game and it should be an instant classic.
How They Got Here
The Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders are the last undefeated team standing, finishing the regular season 10-0 and winning the American Southwest Conference (ASC), and then winning all four of their playoff contests.
The Crusaders began the season with six straight games where they scored at least 56-points. It was an interesting set of pairs, as the team scored 56 in each of their first two games, then 66 in each of the next two, and finally 59 in weeks 5 and 6. That stretch included a decisive 66-27 victory over No. 7 ranked Linfield. In Week 7, they eked out a narrow victory of No. 11 Hardin-Simmons, 20-15, then crushed their final three opponents of the regular season by a combined score of 181-38. It was an absolutely dominating performance to say the least.
Into the playoffs Mary Hardin-Baylor went, as they opened against the Redland Bulldogs. This game was nearly a stunner, as the Bulldogs went to the half leading 21-14. However, the Crusaders came alive in the second half, scoring 36 unanswered points and finally winning 50-28. QB Blake Jackson starred for the team, rushing for a touchdown and throwing for three others. RB Markeith Millers also rushed for two scores.
In the second round, the Crusaders had a rematch against the Linfield Wildcats and came away with another victory, although it was much closer. Jackson starred again, throwing for 256-yards and rushing for 63 more. He threw and rushed for a touchdown in the 27-10 victory. Miller continued to deliver on the ground scoring two more touchdowns, and Keith Reineke starred on the defense, recording 11-tackles and making an interception. T.J. Mosey had a big day receiving, making 11-catches for 180-yards and a TD.
In the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division-III football playoffs, Mary Hardin-Baylor went up against No. 12 Wheaton. This was a close battle in the first half as the Thunder took the lead on a field goal, but the Crusaders scored 10 unanswered points to go to the break leading by seven. In the second half it would be all Crusaders. Reggie Wilson blocked a punt that was recovered by Baylor Mullins for a touchdown. Raylon Hickey also had a 32-yard interception return for a score as MHB would win 38-16. Miller had a huge day, rushing for 142-yards and a score. Wilson had three blocked kicks on the day and made 15-tackles.
Last weekend, the team took on No. 8 ranked Mount Union, the team that has made it to the last 12 championship title games. The Purple Raiders took a 3-0 lead on a 30-yard field goal in the second quarter, but the Crusaders responded with a 33-yard touchdown pass from Jackson to Wykeyhe Walker to make it 7-3. Another field goal would send it to the half with Mary Hardin-Baylor leading by one. Jackson would add a one-yard touchdown run in the third quarter to make it 14-6, but Dom Davis ran for an 8-yard score to make it a two-point game. Mount Union went for two and did not make it, leaving the score 14-12. The Crusaders would hang on in the final 4:24 to advance to the title game.
Jackson threw for 159-yards and a TD and ran for 77-yards and another score. The defense was the big story, making 3-interceptions, led by Keith Reineke who had 13-tackles and a pick. Overall, the Crusaders defense allowed just 63-yards passing and 242 total yards of offense.
The UW-Oshkosh Titans opened up with four straight wins, which included a season opening victory over the John Carroll Blue Streak, the team they faced last weekend, 33-14. In Week 5, the Titans fell to UW-Whitewater, 17-14, before rattling off five straight wins to close out the season. While dominating most of their opponents, they also played extremely well in close games, going 2-1 in games decided by 10-points or less. The offense scored at least 33-points in seven games, and scored better than 40 in the last four contests of the season.
In their first round contest, the Titans downed Washington University, 49-13. This was a close contest early on as UW-Oshkosh led 14-7, however, they would roll out five straight touchdowns and eventually go on to win by 36. QB Brett Kasper threw for 3-touchdowns on the afternoon, and RB Devon Linzenmeyer added two on the ground in the victory.
The No. 9 ranked St. John’s Johnnies were up next and UWO would roll in the second half. The score was just 10-7 heading into halftime, but the Titans would blow it open in the second half. Dylan Hecker added two touchdown runs after the break, and scored three total touchdowns to go along with 198-yards rushing. Linzenmeyer also had a big TD, a 72-yard run for a score, as UW-Oshkosh won 31-14.
In Round 3, the Titans took on the very dangerous No. 3 ranked St. Thomas Tommies. This was a 7-7 game until Kasper connected with Sam Mentkowski for two touchdowns giving UW-Oshkosh the lead, but the Tommies would battle back to tie the score at 24. The teams would battle to 31 apiece before Eli Wettstein kicked what turned out to be the game-winning field goal with 2:30 left in the game, as the Titans won 34-31. The defense was the big reason why UW-Oshkosh advanced, creating eight turnovers (3-fumbles, 5-interceptions).
Last weekend, UW-Oshkosh took on John Carroll in a rematch of their Week 1 contest. It would be an interesting irony as the Titans would begin and end the Blue Streak’s season with a loss. This was a defensive struggle from the very start. Neither team would get on the scoreboard in the first half as 12 total possessions ended in 10 punts. John Carroll mounted the only real drive when they would advance to the UWO 32, but they would turn the ball over on downs. In the third quarter, Kasper would score from three-yards out and the Titans would never trail. Wettstein increased the lead to 10-0 with a 32-yard field goal, and Matt Danko added a 24-yarder to make it 10-3 but that would be the final. On the Blue Streak’s final drive of the game they would move to the UWO 35, but time would run out and they would fall, 10-3.
This was a defensive struggle and it showed in the statistics. John Carroll only recorded 264 total yards of offensive, while the Titans had just 214. Branden Lloyd had 3-sacks for UW-Oshkosh and the team recorded 3-interceptions.
Statistics (National Rankings in Parenthesis)
Mary Hardin-Baylor PPG: 49.4 (2) Rush YDs/Gm: 246.3 (18) Pass YDs/Gm: 237.0 (91) Avg YDs/Gm: 483.3 (19)
UW-Oshkosh PPG: 38.3 (29) Rush YDs/Gm: 263.9 (13) Pass YDs/Gm: 190.4 (171) Avg YDs/Gm: 454.3 (40)
Mary Hardin-Baylor PPG: 14.4 (14) Rush YDs/Gm: 76.6 (9) Pass YDs/Gm: 217.4 (118) Avg YDs/Gm: 294.1 (25)
UW-Oshkosh PPG: 12.9 (6) Rush YDs/Gm: 109.0 (40) Pass YDs/Gm: 160.1 (22) Avg YDs/Gm: 269.1 (14)
Comparisons: (Mary Hardin-Baylor Player Listed First)
Quarterback: Blake Jackson vs. Brett Kasper
Jackson is an all-star performer if you ever saw one. He threw for 3,111-yards and 35-touchdowns, and likely would have thrown for much more had his team not been up by 30 early in most games. He is deadly accurate, completing 66.2 percent of his passes and throwing just 8 picks. Adding to the QB’s skill set is the fact that he is a great runner as well. Jackson rushed for 785-yards and 10-TDs. With nearly 4,000 yards of total offense he is the most dangerous player on the field.
Kasper is also the victim of how successful his team is. He threw for 2,404-yards and 19-touchdowns, but those numbers are much lower than they would be had his team not been dominating opponents early. When needed, he makes plays and is smart with the ball as well, throwing just 6-interceptions this season.
Advantage: Mary Hardin-Baylor
Running Backs: Martkeith Miller, Duane Thompson vs. Dylan Hecker, Devon Linzenmeyer
Miller has been a big-time performer in these playoffs, rushing for 6-TDs and 444-yards. Overall, he has 1,493-yards rushing this season and finds himself sitting a lot late in games when the Crusaders are blowing out opponents. Miller scored 20-TDs this season, sixth best in the country. Thompson would star on most other teams in the nation, rushing for 640-yards and 6-scores in limited action.
The Titans like to split time between their two backs and it works well for them. Hecker leads the team with 1,113-yards rushing and 16-touchdowns. He is paired with Linzenmeyer, who rushed for 848-yards and 10-touchdowns on 62-carries less than Hecker had. This is the UWO version of Thunder and Lightning and the two are tough to stop because eventually they will change the game. Of all the offensive players for either team, Hecker had the biggest performance last weekend, rushing for 74-yards on 18-carries.
Wide Receivers: T.J. Josey, Bryce Wilkerson, DeNerian Thomas, Wykeyhe Walker vs. Dom Todarello, CJ Blackburn, Sam Mentkowski, Evan Thammahong
Because Mary Hardin-Baylor throws the ball a lot more they have a much more potent group of receivers, at least in terms of numbers. Josey made 50-receptions this season for 1,006-yards and 8-touchdowns. He had a very gaudy 20.6 yards per catch average and is the kind of difference make that can turn the tide in a game quickly. Wilkerson led the team with 9-touchdown receptions and adds 651-yards receiving. Thomas (42, 362, 4) and Walker (38, 501, 7) add a lot of depth to this group. The Crusaders had six players that made at least 17-receptions.
UW-Oshkosh does not have the numbers to match the Crusaders, but that does not mean that this is not a talented group. Different things are expected of them but they make plays when called upon to do so. Todarello led the team in receptions (40), yards receiving (532), and touchdowns (6). He is smart and knows how to get open when Kasper is in trouble. Mentkowski is the big play receiver, leading the team with an 18.4 ypc average. He has already shown how important he can be in these playoffs with two touchdown receptions against St. Thomas.
Advantage: Mary Hardin-Baylor
Offensive Line: DeJuan Ramirez, Connolly Fuller, Broderick Jenkins, Corbin Campitelli, Colton Hall vs. Tyler Powers, Ty Summers, Vincent Basile, Austin Summers, Austin Haase
There is a good reason why the Crusaders put up so many points and it starts with their impressive offensive line. The smallest player on this line is Hall, and he is still 270. Fuller is just a beast at 315 and together this group is athletic, physical, and downright mean. They are not easily beaten and take losses on a play personally. They are a linebacker or defensive lineman’s worst nightmare.
The Titans have an offensive line that is every bit as good as MHB. Haase is a beast at 310, and their smallest lineman is 275. They are also quite active and really make holes for their running game. This group is as good as any in the country and is a key reason why UW-Oshkosh is in the championship.
Defensive Line: Haston Adams, Brazos Fuller, Ajay Fanene, Teidrick Smith vs. Justin Watson, Marus Senn, Max Adkins
Smith is the most disruptive force in this game, recording 14.5-sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss. He bats down passes (8), and really knows how to pursue the play despite being double and triple teamed. Adams and Fanene add 5.5-sacks each and Fuller 5. This is a very talented group and is going to give the Titan offensive line all that they can handle.
The Titans’ linemen do not have the numbers that the Crusaders group does, but that is part of being in a 3-4. They are to try to take up as many blockers as they can to free their linebackers, and they do a great job at that. UWO does not get a lot of sacks anyway, but this group provides containment and stops the run game.
Advantage: Mary Hardin-Baylor
Linebackers: Kieth Reineke, Baylor Mullins, Matt Cody vs. Dallis Ramos-Deleon, Jake Thein, Branden Lloyd, Reese Dziedzic, Steve Forner
Mary Hardin-Baylor has a great group of linebackers. Reineke and Mullins are just filthy good and are 1-2 on the team in tackles. Reineke not only leads in tackles (112), but adds 2-sacks and 3-interceptions. He is just everywhere. Mullins is a ball-hawk, leading the team in interceptions (6), and is a force in the way that he plays. Cody also defends the pass well, and has 69-tackles.
The linebacker corps for the Titans is just incredible. Led by Dziedzic (87-tackles), this is fast group that can rush the quarterback and make plays in the passing game. Lloyd leads the group with 5.5-sacks and he adds a pick and 2-forced fumbles. Forner was second on the team in tackles and, combined, this group of five is deep, talented, and nasty.
Advantage: Slight Edge UW-Oshkosh
Secondary: Hunter Schmidt, D’Andre Jackson, Reggie Wilson, Raylon Hickey vs. AJ Piewa, Cameron Brown, Johnny Eagan, Brad Walovitch, Cole Yoder
Wilson finished with 3-interceptions and was tied for third on the team in tackles (75). Hickey is a great cover guy, picking off four passes.
Eagan led the Titans with 8-interceptions and is one of the toughest defensive backs to throw against in the country. He is quick and smart and defends as good as any defensive back you will find. Brown is a big hitter who can make plays in the passing game as does Yoder. The three were tied for fourth on the team with 59-tackles.
Baylor Mullins is not only an outstanding linebacker, but also punts for the team, averaging 35.5 yards per punt. He dropped 23 punts inside the 20. John Mowery made 53.3 percent of his field goal attempts (8-15) with a long of 42. He is great inside the 30, making all four kicks, but is 4-11 from beyond 30-yards. Bryce Wilkerson is the primary return man on kickoffs and punts. He averaged an impressive 12.7 per punt return with 2-TDs, and 23.1 yards per kick return with a score.
The Titans have a very special special teams unit. Turner Geisthardt averaged 40.2 yards per punt, including 16 inside the 20. Eli Wettstein hit 16 of 22 field goals, a 73 percent average with a long of 50-yards. Both are just sophomores. Dom Todarello returns kicks and punts. He averaged a very impressive 14.3 yards per punt return with a TD and 21.3 yards per kickoff return.
Who Will Win
This is a very evenly matched game and should be an exciting one because we are going to see a first-time NCAA Division-III football National Champion. That is always exciting, but it can also mean a lot of jitters early on, and that can mean mistakes. These two teams are well coached, however, and so it is not likely that this will be the case. What is likely is a very hard fought defensive struggle that is going to make gaining yards a real battle.
In a game like this the smart money is to focus on two areas: who has the best special teams and who has the best overall player. The UW-Oshkosh Titans have the superior special teams, but Jackson is the best player on the field. This makes this even tougher to call. We have felt here at the Minor League Sports Report that Mary Hardin-Baylor has been the team to beat since Week 5, and that makes them hard to go against now. So, take the Crusaders in a classic championship battle, 17-14.
By Robert Pannier