SALEM, VA – St. Thomas’ bid for its first national football championship and a perfect season ended Friday night with a 28-10 loss to Mount Union in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl.
The Purple Raiders opened with 14 quick points on a long drive and a blocked punt and, after the Tommies closed to within 14-10, sealed the win with back-to-back drives of 81 and 87 yards before 6,027 fans in Salem Stadium.
The win gave Mount Union its 11th NCAA Division III crown in 16 appearances in the championship game. The Purple Raiders had lost to UW-Whitewater in the title game the last three years.
Coach Glenn Caruso told his players in a midfield huddle after the game that he was proud of their effort and, as painful as the loss was, believes they will learn from it and use it as motivation for next year.
“I mean what I say – we will find a way to get better,” he said in the locker room. “The FAMILY (Forget About Me, I Love You) always does.”
In the post-game news conference, Caruso credited Mount Union for buckling down after the Tommies had trimmed the deficit to four points and taking nearly 14 minutes off the clock on the touchdown drives.
“That’s the mark of a championship team,” he said.
Mount Union Coach Larry Kehres praised St. Thomas’ resilience and how it fought back from the early deficit.
“It was a tough game,” he said. “We had our up and down moments. Pressure defense from St. Thomas caused that. We had some flashes of excellence at times that pulled us through tonight.”
Mount Union jumps to 14-0 first quarter lead
Mount Union wasted no time getting on the scoreboard. The Purple Raiders needed only seven plays and 2:10 to go 82 yards for a touchdown on a one-yard run by Jake Simon. The big play on the drive was a 41-yard pass from Kevin Burke to Jasper Collins, the All-American wide receiver who finished with eight catches for 120 yards.
St. Thomas picked up a first down on each of its first two drives, but when the second drive stalled, Mount Union linebacker Charles Dieuseul blocked a Garrett Maloney punt after a high snap. Dieuseul scooped up the ball at the 13 and ran in for a 14-0 lead with 3:37 left in the first quarter. It was the first blocked St. Thomas punt in 89 punts spanning two seasons.
The Tommies responded with a 10-play, 60-yard drive to cut the Mount Union lead in half three plays into the second quarter. They drove 50 yards to the Mount Union 10 and set up for a field goal on fourth down, but holder Dan Ferrazzo took the snap and ran for the touchdown. Ferrazzo caught two passes for 11 yards and ran twice for 17 yards on the drive.
The St. Thomas defense, after giving up 114 yards in the first quarter, stiffened in the second and held Mount Union to only 22 yards and two first downs in three series. But the Tommies could not take advantage of good field position, twice moving the ball to the Mount Union 25 and 42 before turning the ball over on four downs.
For the half, St. Thomas outgained Mount Union 159 to 136 yards and dominated time of possession 18:30 to 11:30. Quarterback Matt O’Connell hit 11 of 21 passes for 89 yards, with Ferrazzo nabbing six for 37 yards. Freshmen Brenton Braddock, the Tommies’ 1,100-yard rusher, rushed only twice for seven yards before leaving the game, having injured his lower leg in the semifinal win over UW-Oshkosh.
Tommies close to within four points
Neither team could move the ball on its first drives of the second half. Another stalled St. Thomas drive led to a Maloney punt, but Ryan Deitz stripped the ball from returner Chris Denton and long snapper Zach Novaczyk recovered the fumble at the Mount Union 27.
“He got a little bit ahead of me,” Deitz said of Denton, “but I got my hand on the ball, gave it a rip and Zach recovered. It was a big play for us.”
The Tommies again couldn’t move the ball, however, and settled for a 38-yard Paul Graupner field goal to cut the Purple Raiders lead to 14-10 with 6:27 left in the third quarter.
“We had opportunities to put more points on the board,” Caruso said of the three drives that ended in Mount Union territory but netted only the field goal. “If we had done a better job on the offensive side of the ball, we would have been in better shape.”
Mount Union puts game away
Mount Union responded to the Graupner field goal with a 12-play, 81-yard drive capped by a Burke-to-Denton touchdown pass on fourth and five from the St. Thomas 17. The Purple Raiders racked up four first downs in six plays in the middle of the drive.
“These guys buckled down,” said Burke, a sophomore who finished 21 of 28 for 222 yards and was named the game’s Most Outstanding Player. “We looked at where we were (14-10 lead) and we realized this is it. You have to step up at that point. We got the job done.”
Even trailing by 11 points, the Tommies were confident they could rally. Ferrazzo recalled their fourth-quarter comeback in the season opener at UW-Eau Claire, when they were down by 11 points but scored two touchdowns in the last five minutes to win.
“There was no sense of panic on the sideline,” Ferrazzo said.
On the ensuing drive, St. Thomas picked up two first downs on face-mask and personal foul penalties, and O’Connell runs of seven and eight yards put the ball at the Mount Union 42. Two plays later, however, he threw an interception and the Purple Raiders took over at their 13 with 13:06 left in the game.
They marched 87 yards in 14 plays, taking 8:43 off the clock before Jake Simon scored on a one-yard run for a 28-10 lead. Burke faced four third downs and converted each on passes of five and nine yards, an 11-yard run and a 38-yard pass to Collins at the St. Thomas 5.
Mount Union dominated the second half statistics, with 208 yards in 18 minutes of possession, while the Tommies could muster only 35 yards in 30 plays. They were held to season lows in points (10), rushing yards (78), passing yards (116) and total yards (194) and were one of seven on third-down conversions in the second half.
More time with the family
With less than a minute to go, Caruso used all three of his timeouts to extend the game. A reporter asked why he didn’t run out the clock and what he said to his players when they ran to the sideline for timeout huddles.
“I told them I loved them,” he said, “and that I would do anything I could to keep this family together for one more second.”
Another reporter asked Caruso if his team was in a “suspended state,” grateful to have reached the title game after losing in the semifinals last year to Whitewater but disappointed in the final score.
“We’re not in a suspended state,” Caruso said. “We’re pretty crushed right now, and I’d be lying if I said anything else. We all wanted this very badly.”
Earlier in the locker room, he thanked the 12 seniors who had helped to build the foundation for a program that went 50-5 over the last four years with records of 11-2, 12-1, 13-1 and 14-1, and he said he expected to see them in the stands next year.
Ayo Idowu, a defensive lineman from Woodbury, is one of those seniors. In the postgame huddle at midfield, he thanked the younger players for their effort and putting up with him.
“I’m going to be right there in the front row next year, guys,” he said, pointing to the bleachers.