The No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders welcome the No. 8 ranked Mount Union Purple Raiders on Saturday in the semifinals of the NCAA Division-III football playoffs. This is a battle of the two of the biggest powerhouse football programs in all of Division-III football and should be an exciting one. The Crusaders finished the regular season 10-0, then defeated Redlands, Linfield, and Wheaton to reach the final four. Mount Union went 9-1 in the regular season, then defeated Hobart, Johns Hopkins, and Alfred to advance to the semifinals.
The Pathway to the Final Four
The Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders completed an undefeated season. The Crusaders offense was absolutely awesome, leading the country in points per game with a 52.2 ppg average. That included 93 touchdowns. The Crusaders have simply dominated teams all season long, scoring at least 50 points in all but one of their regular season contests. Their closest margin of victory was five over No. 11 ranked Hardin-Simmons, and they pounded No. 7 Linfield 66-27 on September 17.
In the first round, the Crusaders struggled in the first half against Redlands, trailing 21-14 at the half, but a 36-point second half helped them to advance in the 50-28 victory. Blake Jackson ran for a score and threw for three others and Markieth Miller ran for two touchdowns.
Against Linfield, Jackson had another big game, throwing for 256-yards and a TD on just 19-attempts and running for 63 more and a score. Miller also scored 2-touchdowns and Keith Reineke had 11-tackles and an interception. T.J. Mosey made 11-catches for 180-yards and a score in the 27-10 victory.
Last Saturday, Mary Hardin-Baylor downed the No. 12 Wheaton Thunder by a score of 38-16. Wheaton took the lead on a field goal at the start of the second quarter, but the Crusaders responded with a touchdown run by Jackson to make it 7-3. A field goal would make it 10-3 heading into the half. In the second half it would be the special teams that would help MHB to extend their lead. With the Thunder punting, Reggie Wilson blocked the punt and Baylor Mullins recovered the ball in the end zone to make it 17-3. The Thunder cut the deficit to 17-9 and looked like they might mount another scoring drive, when Raylon Hickey intercepted a pass and returned it 32-yards for a touchdown. Leading 24-16, the Crusaders added two scores, one on an 80-yard touchdown pass to Bryce Wilkerson and the other on a 37-yard TD run by Miller to seal the victory.
Miller finished with 142-yards rushing and a TD. DeNarian Thomas made 7-catches for 55-yards. Wilson seemed to be everywhere on defense. Besides the blocked punt, he blocked two other kicks and made 15-tackles.
Mount Union was cruising through the season, dominating their first nine games of the year. They crushed virtually every opponent they faced, with their closest margin of victory being the 38-21 victory over Ohio Northern on 10/1. Their first three games they outscored their opponents 150-17, and they scored at least 38 in every one of their first nine games, including a 71 and a 66-point performance. In their last game of the season they lost to fellow Ohio Athletic Conference powerhouse John Carroll, who also made it into the final four. It was a tight battle that Purple Raiders lost, 31-28.
Mount Union opened the playoffs with a 38-21 victory over No. 18 Hobart. Jawanza Evans-Morris helped stake the Purple Raiders to a 21-7 lead by scoring two touchdowns, and Dom Davis threw for 321-yards in the victory. Evans-Morris combined with fellow running back B.J. Mitchell to rush for four scores.
Against No. 6 Johns Hopkins, Mount Union pulled off an impressive 28-21 come from behind win. The Blue Jays led in the game 21-7 before the Purple Raiders would battle back to win on a 30-yard TD pass by Davis to Ruth to make it 28-7. Mike Vidal had 3-sacks in the contest.
Last week, Mount Union pulled of a big 70-45 victory over No. 15 Alfred. The Saxons took a 7-0 lead only to watch the Purple Raiders score the next four touchdowns. Davis had two touchdown passes during the run and Elijah Berry recovered a fumble and returned it 13-yards for the touchdown. Mount Union led 35-13 before Alfred battled back to make it a two-point game, but Mount Union went on a 28-6 run that saw B.J. Mitchell score two touchdowns and Brian Groves return a kick-off 55-yards for a touchdown.
Mitchell finished with 123-yards and 3-TDs on 15-carries. Davis also had a big day, running for 108-yards and a score and throwing for 251-yards and 3-TDs. Tim Kennedy had 11-catches for 105-yards.
Statistics – (National Ranking in Parenthesis)
Mary Hardin-Baylor PPG: 52.2 (1), Rush YDs/Gm: 256.5 (16), Pass YDs/Gm: 242.2 (84), Total Offense: 498.7 (13)
Mount Union: PPG: 46.3 (3), Rush YDs/Gm: 265.7 (13), Pass YDs/Gm: 242.0 (85), Total Offense: 507.7 (9)
Mary Hardin-Baylor PPG: 14.6 (15), Rush YDs/Gm: 68.8 (6), Pass YDs/Gm: 229.3 (143), Total Offense: 298.1 (31)
Mount Union: PPG: 14.2 (12), Rush YDs/Gm: 66.8 (4), Pass YDs/Gm: 234.4 (152), Total Offense: 300.2 (34)
Mount Union Offense vs the Mary Hardin-Baylor Defense
Mount Union is about as balanced of an offense as any team in the country. The two-headed monster of Bradley Mitchell and Jawanza Evans-Morris makes it very difficult to stop the Purple Raiders on the ground, although this contest should be a real challenge. Mary Hardin-Baylor has a very active front seven, which has been brilliant at shutting down the run all season, ranked sixth in the country with just 68.8 yards per game allowed. Seniors Keith Reinke and Baylor Mullins make for one of the most active pairings of any defense in the country and they flat out make plays. They can defend the run or drop back in coverage, and so the play of the receivers for Mount Union will be a key. Dom Davis has proven that he can shred a secondary, and last weekend he proved he can make plays with his legs. He is a game changer, but the Crusaders defense had 10 players who recorded multiple interceptions this season, led by Mullins (6).
This means that the two things are going to have to happen for Mount Union to continue on. First, Teidrick Smith (14-sacks) has to be stopped. He is such a disruptive force and Davis must have time to find his talented group of wide outs. No one on the Purple Raiders has eye popping numbers, and that is by design. Five guys can make plays, and Tim Kennedy is smart and knows how to find seems. This group has to win the one-on-one battles for the Purple Raiders to win this game.
Mary Hardin-Baylor Offense vs. Mount Union Defense
A lot of what was said for the Mount Union offense can be said for Crusaders. The Purple Raiders are even better against the run, ranked fourth, and they were 12th in points allowed this season with just 14.2 per game. To be frank, they will be fortunate if they only give up three times that number this Saturday. Mary Hardin-Baylor is just brutal. Not only did Markieth Miller rush for 1,444 yards and 20-TDs, but Blake Jackson threw for 2,952-yards and 34-touchdowns and ran for 708-yards and 9 more scores. Add to it four players that caught at least 32 passes, including three that caught better than 40, and it is easy to see why this team is so difficult to stop.
Of course, the defending National Champions are not chopped liver by any stretch of the imagination. Junior Mike Vidal has been a beast for three seasons for Mount Union, recording 12.5 this year to go along with double digits in each of his first two seasons. He played in limited action last weekend, making just 3-tackles, and his full health will be a major key. Austin White made 5-interceptions, but only one other player had more than one, and that was sophomore Danny Robinson (3), who also led the team in tackles. He is a flat out ball hawk and shows poise well beyond his years.
For Mount Union, Adam Snyder averaged an impressive 40.2 yards per punt and he is the kind of guy that makes a difference in a game like this because of his ability to pin opponents deep in their own territory. Alex Louthan made 10 of 15 field goals, including a 44-yarder and made 81 of 82 extra-points.
John Mowery made just 8 of 14 field goal attempts, but he isn’t required to make many attempts for the Crusaders. He made all 84 point after attempts. Bryce Wilkerson averaged 14.1 yards per punt return and scored twice. He could very easily negate the effectiveness of Snyder.
Statistically, these are two of the most evenly matched teams you will find. They both can score, shut down opponents in the run game, and keep them off the scoreboard. In a game like this where both teams have a lot to be excited about, the smart bet is to go with the team that has the most dynamic player. That would be Jackson. Mount Union was really going to have some struggles stopping him already, but with Vidal potentially not at 100 percent the task becomes more daunting. Only one team entered the Final Four with an undefeated record, and they will stay that way. Take the Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders, 44-27.
By Robert Pannier