By DOUG HENNES
SALEM, Va. – St. Thomas' dreams of its first national football championship and a perfect season were dashed again Friday night, 49-35, by top-ranked Mount Union.
The Tommies (14-1) twice held leads – 14-0 in the first quarter and 21-14 in the third – but couldn't hold off the undefeated Purple Raiders, who won their 12th NCAA Division III title and their first since defeating St. Thomas three years ago in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl here.
Mount Union rallied from a seven-point deficit to score 21 straight points over a five-minute stretch in the third quarter and take a 35-21 lead. St. Thomas narrowed the gap to a touchdown but Mount Union responded with two fourth-quarter touchdowns.
St. Thomas halfback Jordan Roberts closed his record-setting season with 135 rushing yards to finish with 2,092 – the first 2,000-yard rusher in school history – and tied Sam Benger of Carnegie Mellon atop Division III. Roberts' 34 rushing touchdowns and 218 points rank first.
"Hats off to Mount Union," Coach Glenn Caruso said in his post-game news conference. "As I have said for many years, they are the standard in Division III. Some day, if we work long enough and hard enough, maybe we will be."
Roberts said as much as the loss hurts, he remains "very proud of the season we had, the guys in the locker room and the journey we took."
Caruso noted that football observers didn't have high expectations of St. Thomas, coming off 8-2 and 8-3 seasons and ranked No. 14 in preseason polls with no returning All-Americans and no players on pre-season All-America teams.
"Most people might have seen us as the little engine that could," he said, but he believed more was there. He was impressed with "the focus, the love our players had for each other and the selflessness in their hearts." He also insisted the season should not be seen as a failure.
"One of the things I love about this game is that it teaches things that can't be caught in any other facet of society – and that's failure," he said. He will find a way "to make a positive out of this. … I promise you that when bad things happen, we'll make the most of it."
Mount Union Coach Vince Kehres called the Stagg Bowl clash "a heckuva football game with two great teams battling it out for four quarters." He praised St. Thomas for not giving up in the second half and thought the Tommies showed "great class" from start to finish.
Tommies grab 14-0 lead
St. Thomas twice took advantage of favorable field position in Mount Union territory to grab a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter. It was the biggest deficit that Mount Union faced this year and the first time it had trailed after the first quarter.
The Tommies' first scoring drive started at the Mount Union 48, and on the eighth play at the 19, quarterback John Gould found tight end Charlie Dowdle in the end zone. The pass was ruled incomplete but an officials' review reversed the call, with replays showing Dowdle had bobbled the ball before grabbing it with his right hand and holding it. Kicker Paul Graupner added the extra point for a 7-0 lead with five minutes left in the quarter.
St. Thomas held Mount Union to 12 yards on its next two drives, and freshman Adam Brant foiled a fake fourth-down punt to give the Tommies the ball at the Purple Raiders' 34 to start the second quarter. They gained only 31 yards from scrimmage in the quarter.
Working with another short field, St. Thomas rushed eight straight times to score on a one-yard run by Roberts on fourth and led 14-0. The only previous deficit Mount Union faced this season was 6-0 early in last week's semifinal game against UW-Whitewater, but Kehres was not worried.
"Keeping our poise – that has been really big for this team this year," he said. "A team with a lot of experience can keep its poise."
With a 20-mph wind at its back in the second quarter, Mount Union responded with two Taurice Scott touchdown passes to tie the game. The first pass, to Lane Clark on third and goal from the 7, capped a nine-play, 82-yard drive. Mount Union forced a 3-and-out punt by St. Thomas, took over at the Tommies' 47 and needed only three plays before Scott found Roman Namdar from 29 yards out for the touchdown.
Back on top . . . but not for long
St. Thomas struck quickly after taking the second-half kickoff. Gould, facing fourth and 2 at his 42, dropped back to pass, was forced out of the pocket and heaved the ball downfield to Nick Waldvogel. He caught the wind-aided pass behind the Mount Union defense and outraced the defenders 28 yards into the end zone for a 21-14 lead.
But Mount Union needed only a total of 12 plays on its next three possessions to score 21 points and take a 14-point lead that it would maintain for the rest of the game. Each of the three drives took four plays and totaled 3:51 on the clock.
Scott tied the game on another touchdown to Clark, this one covering 13 yards. On the first play of the Tommies' next drive, Waldvogel lost a fumble after a 12-yard run to his 27, and Mount Union scored 70 seconds later on a 6-yard Bradley Mitchell run. After forcing a 3-and-out St. Thomas punt, Scott capped a 72-yard drive with an 18-yard touchdown run.
The speed with which Mount Union seized control of the game stunned the Salem Stadium crowd of 5,323 huddled on a night with a game-time temperature of 22 and a wind chill of 14.
Kehres said his second-half game plan, kicking off to St. Thomas and playing into the wind, was to try to spread the field against the Tommies' aggressive, swarm-to-the-ball defense. The three drives featured big plays – passes of 63, 13, 13 and 14 yards and runs of 16, 42 and 18 yards.
"All that speed flying around messed with them a little bit," said Mount Union halfback Logan Nemeth, who rushed for 220 yards for his third straight 200-yard game.
The Tommies, however, weren't done. On their next drive, Waldvogel took a handoff from Gould and picked up seven yards before fumbling at his 44. But Gould, trailing the play, picked up the ball and outran Mount Union defenders for a 56-yard touchdown, and St. Thomas trailed only 35-28.
"I was just trying to follow the ball," Gould said. "It popped out and I was there."
Caruso said Gould was being too modest. "That's a hustle play," he said, pointing out that 95 of 100 times there wouldn't be a need for Gould to be on the spot. But on those other five occasions, it can – and did – make a difference.
St. Thomas forced a 3-and-out punt and moved the ball to the Mount Union 32, but turned the ball over on downs on the last play of the third quarter when field goal holder Charlie Dowdle picked up the snap and was stopped short of the first down.
Mount Union scored on its next two drives, covering 71 yards in eight running plays and 51 yards in five plays to take its biggest lead at 49-28 midway through the fourth quarter. Nemeth scored both touchdowns, from the 2 and the 36.
St. Thomas closed the scoring midway through the fourth quarter on a four-yard Roberts touchdown run. The Tommies recovered an onside kick at the Mount Union 45, but Gould threw an interception on the first play from scrimmage and the Purple Raiders ran out the clock.
Mount Union more than doubled, with 49 points, the most points given up by St. Thomas this year – 19 in a second-round playoff game against St. John's. St. Thomas matched the 35 points that Wesley scored against Mount Union in the quarterfinals.