The Stagg Bowl was created in 1973 to crown a football champion in the NCAA’s newly created Division III. The game found what has become a permanent home when it moved to Salem, Va., in 1993.
The championship has been the purview of Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater since 2005. Those teams have claimed the past 10 titles and held 19 of the 20 places in the Stagg Bowl.
The interloper was St. Thomas, when it lost to Mount Union in 2012. And now the Tommies will be making a return trip to take another swing at the Mighty Mount in Friday night’s 43rd Stagg Bowl.
St. Thomas got there with a mugging of another storied D-III program — the Linfield [Ore.] Wildcats — on Saturday at O’Shaughnessy Stadium in St. Paul. The final was 38-17, a 14th consecutive victory in which the Tommies have not been challenged severely.
They won’t have that as an issue in the Stagg Bowl, against a Mount Union machine that is also unbeaten, also unchallenged, and looking for its 12th D-III title since 1993.
Mount Union’s meeting with UW-Whitewater, its big-stage rival, came Saturday in the semifinals.
The Purple Raiders cruised 36-6, and now they will again see the purple of St. Thomas. The score was 28-10 for Mount Union in 2012, but there are reasons to suggest this is a more powerful collection of Tommies than three years ago.
Coach Glenn Caruso took the 1-mile journey from Macalester eight seasons ago and got busy fulfilling the tremendous football potential that had long gone unclaimed at St. Thomas.
Again on Saturday, the Tommies demonstrated the Caruso formula: an offense based on a powerful rushing game, and a defense built on speed and aggressiveness.
The rushing part of that was pushed to a new level when Jordan Roberts, once Wyoming’s high school player of the year, received a calling from his higher power while going through an injured sophomore season at South Dakota.
In late September, after slashing through St. John’s for 230 yards and four touchdowns, Roberts explained his presence at St. Thomas as a junior running back:
“I started thinking about devoting my life to God during football season last fall. After a while, it was all I could think of.’’
Roberts enrolled in the St. John Vianney seminary at St. Thomas last January. The Tommies’ rushing attack went from very good with projected starter Jack Kaiser, to “what’s this guy doing in D-III?’’ with Roberts.
The 256 yards for the Slashin’ Seminarian put his season total at 1,957, surpassing the single-season record for Gary Trettel in 1990. Trettel’s son Tucker, a freshman, had the wrapup duty Saturday — and eventually will be the next star back in the Tommies’ rushing game.
For now, Roberts is the star, and Kaiser is a punishing backup, and they both get to follow the hell-on-wheels blocking fullback Dominic Truoccolo, and a huge, experienced and magnificent offensive line.
This is what actually might give the Tommies a shot at Mount Union — an ability to hold the ball with Roberts and associates.
Linfield, like St. Thomas, came in averaging more than 50 points per game. In its previous 84 games, the Wildcats had been held to 17 points or fewer a total of four times.
Saturday, Linfield was looking at a 14-0 deficit in the first 9:14, and at that point, the Tommies had 18 plays (17 rushes) for 138 yards, and the Wildcats had three plays for a minus-1.
In the end, Roberts carried 33 times, and the Tommies totaled 62 rushes for 404 yards.
By comparsion, Linfield had to throw 52 times.
“I feel like this is the first time we’ve gotten beat in the Division III playoffs,’’ Linfield coach Joe Smith said. “We’ve lost, but we’ve been in games. This is the first time we’ve been really beaten …
“Their ability to run the football; that’s something that no one has done to us, that I can remember.’’
David Simmet, the Tommies’ gigantic right tackle, would have been in Salem this week as one of the four finalists for the Gagliardi Award that will be given to the Division III player of year Wednesday. This is better, also being there as a player.
The arrival of Roberts, with his 32 rushing touchdowns and nearly 2,000 yards, has assisted greatly in the Tommies’ return to southern Virginia.
“What’s it like blocking for this guy?’’ Simmet was asked.
Simmet nodded toward his teammates, “It’s great. If we give Jordan an inch, he takes a mile.’’
Actually, a couple of hundred yards more than a mile in 14 games, and now with one huge challenge to go.