Long Drives Frustrate Tommie Defense

The St. Thomas defense slowed a potent Mount Union attack, but in the end the Purple Raiders made enough plays to post a 28-10 victory Friday night and claim the program’s 11th Division III national championship.

The Tommies (14-1) shut down the potent Raiders (15-0) for most in the middle two quarters and forced four mid-game punts.

But in the end, with the UST offense slowed by an injury to 1,100-yard rusher Brenton Braddock and  hurt by a few mistakes, three Mount Union scoring drives of 80-plus yards proved too much to overcome.

The key statistic: In the second half, Mount Union ran 37 plays and gained 208 yards, as it converted 5-of-8 on third downs after halftime to deny St. Thomas’ comeback bid.

And this: St. Thomas’ defense had 10 takeaways in its first four playoff wins, but none on Friday against an efficient Raider offense.

A crowd of just over 6,000 saw the Tommies rebound from a nightmare start as they fell behind Mount Union 14-0 in the game’s first 10 minutes on the clock.

St. Thomas allowed a seven-play, 82-yard touchdown drive in the game’s opening 2:10 on the clock to quickly trail 7-0. A blocked punt and 13-yard TD return made it 14-0 just 11:23 into the game.

After St. Thomas answered with a long scoring drive for a 14-7 score, the Tommie defense forced a three-and-out as the game’s momentum slowly turned.

“There was a stretch there where we had (Mount Union) on their heels,” said UST defensive coordinator Wallie Kuchinski. “We had them on the ropes. But those last two drives were killers. We’ve been really good on third downs this season (27 percent allowed), but 6-of-13 on the game is not good. We just didn’t get off the field enough. We gave them too many chances.”

The play of the game came late in the third quarter after the Toms had pulled within 14-10. UST was on the verge of taking possession but on fourth-and-four from the 17-yard line, Raider QB Kevin Burke hit Chris Denton on a 17-yard TD strike to the corner of the end zone. That capped a 12-play, 81-yard drive and pushed the lead to 21-10.

The Raiders took full command on their next possession, a 14-play, 87-yard touchdown drive that burned 8:38, for an 18-point lead.

UST coach Glenn Caruso called the last two scoring drives “pivotal” but gave credit to Mount Union for making the plays in the second half. “That’s the mark of a championship team,” he said.

The Raiders’ offense had no turnovers. Burke completed 21 of 28 passes for 222 yards. All but two went to wide receivers Denton (11 catches) and Jasper Collins (8 catches).

There were some bright spots for the Tommie defense, which played much of the second half without injured Harry Pitera and Derek Vonnahme:

  • UST limited Mount Union to only one offensive gain of more than 17 yards (a 41-yard catch and run by Collins that set up the final TD.)
  • A Mount Union attack that averaged near seven offensive TDs a game was limited to three.
  • A Mount Union offense that generated 558 yards a game in its 14-0 start gained a season-low 344 yards.
  • The Tommies had three sacks and another tackle for loss of Burke that could have been called a sack but was ruled a run. Mount Union had allowed four sacks just once all season.

Ryan Deitz, one of six senior starters on defense, said the Tommies were excited for the challenge of playing the No. 1-ranked Raiders.

“Their receivers are very fast, very strong, and all good athletes,” Deitz said. “We tried to do whatever we could to defend them. We had a good scheme. They definitely made some good plays, so give them credit. It was a challenge to play them. It was an exciting, fun game. Obviously, we’d rather be on the other side (of the outcome).”