SALEM, VA. - The St. Thomas football team was stopped one step short of the NCAA mountaintop, blocked Friday night by the team that has set the standard for excellence at the Division III level.
Mount Union defeated the Tommies 28-10 in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, the D-III national championship game.
While it was the first visit to the final for the Tommies (14-1), they faced a team that practically calls Salem Stadium home, having played in the Stagg Bowl the past eight years and 16 times since 1993. This was the 11th title for the Purple Raiders (15-0), but their first since 2008.
The Tommies gave a decent show to the announced 6,027 chilled witnesses, staying in the game into the fourth quarter, trailing by 11 with the ball just outside the Mount Union red zone. But St. Thomas' Matt O'Connell was intercepted by Isaiah Scott, which was followed by a clock-eating Purple Raiders drive of 8 minutes, 48 seconds that ended with a Jake Simon touchdown to seal the Tommies' fate.
St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso said that drive was the backbreaker. "That was pivotal," he said. "That's the mark of a championship team."
It was Mount Union's second long drive of the second half. The previous drive came with the Purple Raiders holding on to a 14-10 lead. They had trouble solving the blitzing St. Thomas defense, but started using short passes to the flats to neutralize the rush.
The Raiders mounted an 81-yard march that culminated when Kevin Burke found receiver Chris Denton in the back-left corner of the end zone for a touchdown to push their lead to 21-10. The 81-yard drive took 5:17 when the Tommies needed the clock as much as the ball.
"We had them on the ropes there in the middle of the game but two long drives were the killers," Tommies defensive coordinator Wallie Kuchinski said.
Defensively, the Tommies did what few before them were able to accomplish -- holding the Mount Union offense in relative check. It had averaged 56 points per game this season and 61 in the playoffs.
"We had our ups and downs," Raiders coach Larry Kehres said. "The pressure defense of St. Thomas caused that."
But while the St. Thomas defense was tough, Mount Union's proved to be stubborn, as well. The Raiders' five sacks were the most surrendered by the Tommies this season.
In the second half, St. Thomas managed only 35 yards on 30 plays, converting only one of seven third downs. The lone conversion came on a personal foul penalty for a late hit.
St. Thomas starting tailback Brenton Braddock nursed an injured leg all week and tried to go, but found it impossible after only two carries for 7 yards on the Tommies' first series. Jack Kaiser rushed 16 times for 30 yards.
The Tommies fell behind 14-0 but cut that deficit in half on a fake field goal that holder Dan Ferrazzo ran in 10 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. In the third quarter, a St. Thomas fumble recovery on a punt return set up Paul Graupner's wind-aided 38-yard field goal that pulled St. Thomas within 14-10, before the Purple Raiders offense woke up.
Kehres has been the Mount Union coach for all 11 national titles. His record over 27 seasons sits at 332-24-3.
"It was a difficult three years to see the seniors experience loss in the final game," Kehres told the Associated Press after the victory. "I felt for them. This group inspired me to do everything I could coaching to make sure we got every chance to win the championship this year."