SALEM, VA. – The NCAA created Division III athletics in 1973, and St. Thomas had won national titles in eight sports. Football wasn’t one of them.
Clearly, this made the Tommies a hungry collection of athletes on Friday night as they arrived at Salem Stadium to play in the Stagg Bowl for the second time in four seasons.
And if they were hungry, how about Mount Union?
The Purple Raiders had not won a Division III national championship game since they defeated St. Thomas in 2012. Even worse, that stood as Mount Union’s only football title in six seasons.
This was almost shameful for Mount Union, when you consider the Raiders had won 10 of the 16 titles awarded in the Stagg Bowl from 1993 to 2008.
Wisconsin-Whitewater had been the villain, beating Mount Union five times in the championship game since 2008. Last weekend, Mount Union ended its losing streak against Whitewater with a 36-6 victory in the D-III semifinals.
“We didn’t come to Mount Union just to beat Whitewater,’’ star running back Logan Nemeth said. “We came to Mount Union to win a Stagg Bowl.’’
Yes, Tim Brewster fans, the Purple Raiders weren’t hungry … they were starving.
For 19 minutes, it actually looked as if Mount Union was going to stay on its championship diet. And then came a display of offense almost incomprehensible to those who had watched St. Thomas roll to a 14-0 record while allowing 9.9 points per game.
The final was 49-35, with the Raiders scoring those touchdowns with drives as lightning-fast and decisive as many of those the Tommies had against the most overmatched MIAC opponents.
The Tommies had allowed an average of 226.6 yards and a total of 19 touchdowns in 14 games. On Friday, they surrendered seven touchdowns and 531 yards, including 330 on the ground.
The Tommies had seen some excellent athletes when playing Linfield and Wabash, St. John’s twice and individuals such as Augsburg quarterback Ayrton Scott.
What they hadn’t seen were offensive players bunched together like Nemeth, quarterback Taurice Scott and receiver Roman Namdar. Nemeth gouged the Tommies for 220 yards on 30 carries, Scott rushed for 78 yards, passed for 201 and accounted for four touchdowns, and Namdar caught five passes for 127 yards and a touchdown.
“Yes, they were more explosive than the Mount Union team we played here three years ago,’’ Tommies coach Glenn Caruso said. “Every time we scored, they had an answer.’’
Amazingly, there were 19 minutes of game action when it looked as if Mount Union might not have the answers. The Tommies were up 14-0, All-America tailback Jordan Roberts was on his way to 101 yards in the first half and the Tommies were keeping Scott hemmed into the middle of the field.
The two teams had awoken to a cool, sunny morning here in the shadow of the Appalachians, and it seemed as if the weather forecast for frigid temperatures was overstated.
It wasn’t. The wind started howling from the northwest early in the afternoon, and the flags were blowing straight at the east end zone when the kickoff arrived early in the night.
The windchill was 22 degrees and dropping, and the team playing into the wind was going to be limited.
The Tommies had opened with the wind on their side, and quarterback John Gould was able to throw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Charlie Dowdle with five minutes left in the first quarter. A failed fake punt by Mount Union had set up a second touchdown to make it 14-0 for the Tommies at 10:59 of the second period.
And then coach Vince Kehres ordered the Raiders into a hurry-up offense. The result was Vince’s first national title as the head coach, to go with the 11 won by his father Larry, the coach who created the football dynasty in Alliance, Ohio.
The Raiders went 82 yards in nine plays to make it 14-7, then 47 yards in three plays to tie it at 14. The touchdowns came 2:20 apart.
The Tommies took that 14-14 tie to the locker room at halftime, where the discussion had to be what could be done about Mount Union’s speed advantage. The only answer would have been “lassoes.’’
St. Thomas did manage a couple of strange touchdowns in the third quarter:
Caruso went for it on fourth-and-2 at the Tommies 42. Gould danced for 5 seconds, then heaved a wind-aided pass over the top to an open Nick Waldvogel for a 58-yard touchdown.
Later, Waldvogel fumbled, the ball popped to Gould as he came toward the tackle, and he ran for a 55-yard touchdown.
Unfortunately for the Tommies, Mount Union had the ball three times between those TDs and scored thusly: four plays, 83 yards in 1:37; four plays, 61 yards in 1:12; and four plays, 76 yards in 1:12.
During a 5:08 span of play, Mount Union went from trailing 21-14 to leading 35-21.
It was a track meet the rest of the way — and the Tommies never had a chance against Mount Union, a group of swift athletes who were also feeling undernourished in the title department.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. • email@example.com