ALLIANCE: Negative thoughts could have crept into the minds of Mount Union on a gloomy, overcast day when everything seemed to be going wrong.
But that kind of attitude doesn’t exist in a venue where losing seldom happens and is not accepted.
Thanks to a lot of inner resolve, and some huge late plays, Mount Union will head to the Division III national championship after a 48-35 semifinal victory over Mary Hardin-Baylor (Texas) before 3,282 fans Saturday at Mount Union Stadium.
“I kept hearing things on the sideline that I knew our players thought we’d rally, and score,” Purple Raiders coach Larry Kehres said.
As far as range of emotions, “this game had them all, didn’t it?” said a smiling, relieved Kehres.
Mount Union (14-0) heads to the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl in Salem, Va., at 7 p.m. Friday to face St. Thomas (Minn.), which beat Wisconsin-Oshkosh 28-14 Saturday.
The Purple Raiders are seeking their 11th national title and first since this year’s senior class arrived in 2009.
Mount Union last fell short of the Stagg Bowl in 2004, when it lost a semifinal 38-35 to Mary-Hardin Baylor.
For much of Saturday’s game, there was a foreboding sense of deja vu, as five turnovers directly led to all of the Crusaders’ scores.
“There is that temptation to say, ‘You know what? They played a great game, it’s not our year, it’s not our game,’ ” sophomore quarterback Kevin Burke said. “But that’s not the way we play. It’s not the way we were taught to play. We’re not giving up until it’s zero.”
Mount Union trailed 21-14 at the half and by 14 early in the third quarter. The Raiders came back to tie, but fell behind 35-28 midway through the fourth quarter.
It wasn’t decided until senior Jake Simon plowed into the end zone from 12 yards out for a 42-35 lead with five seconds left, when it appeared the Raiders were preparing to set up for a field-goal attempt.
“It’s a play we ran consistently all day and it was stopped many times,” Kehres said. “But that time it was a hit.”
The Purple Raiders added another score on the game’s final play when Twinsburg’s Matt Fetchko grabbed an errant lateral on a kickoff return, running it back 25 yards to the end zone as a sea of purple-clad fans swarmed the field.
The heroes were many. Fetchko made big defensive plays all day. Hank Spencer blocked a punt, and Nyejel Thomas recovered it in the end zone as Mount Union tied it 28-28 with 12:50 left.
“Every time our offense turned the ball over, I just looked at it as an opportunity for us as a defense,” said senior strong safety Nick Driskill. “To kind of show we’re the No. 1 defense in the country.”
Mount Union outgained its foe in total yards, 457 to 275, and held the Crusaders to three first downs in the second half.
Burke overcame two interceptions, including one that was returned 42 yards by Brodrick Crain for the score that put Mary Hardin-Baylor up 28-14 with 11:08 left in the third quarter. He threw three touchdown passes, two to Jasper Collins and one to Julius Moore.
Burke completed 20-of-33 passes for 268 yards, 200 of those to Collins who caught 11 balls. Burke rushed for 89 yards on 18 carries. Blair Skilliter played both ways and rushed for 67 yards and a score.
Driskill had 19 tackles, 11 unassisted, and stopped Elijah Hudson on a key fourth-and-one play at Mount’s 36 in the third quarter. Driskill earned North Region defensive player of the year last week, while Collins won the offensive award.
Senior quarterback LiDarral Bailey and Hudson each ran for two scores for the Crusaders. Senior linebacker Javicz Jones had 10 solo tackles and a sack.
“Congratulations to Mount Union,” Mary-Hardin Baylor coach Pete Fredenburg said. “They came back in the second half and did an incredible job. They did some things on defense and we had a hard time moving the ball.”