Defense lifts Purple Raiders into Stagg Bowl
ALLIANCE — Mount Union’s defense has scored almost as many points as it has given up.
Trevor Cox and Gabe Brown had long interception returns for touchdowns to propel top-ranked Mount Union past 13th-ranked Johns Hopkins (Md.), 28-20, in an NCAA Division III semifinal Saturday.
The win puts the Purple Raiders (14-0) into the NCAA Division III national championship game for the 21st time in 26 years. They will take on second-ranked Mary Hardin-Baylor (14-0) in a rematch of last year’s Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl at 7 p.m. Friday in Shenandoah, Texas.
Mount Union’s defense held Johns Hopkins — which tops the nation averaging 564 total yards a game — to 168 yards in the first half and 367 total. That included six sacks along with the two touchdowns off interceptions.
The Purple Raiders needed it with the offense having another game never getting untracked. Still, sophomore running back Josh Petruccelli ran for 110 yards — his ninth 100-yard game of the season — and Justin Hill had two touchdown catches from D’Angelo Fulford.
Mount Union’s defense has scored 15 touchdowns in 14 games this season, while giving up 19 touchdowns.
After the Mount Union defense forced a three-and-out, the Purple Raiders took over on offense and moved 89 yards on eight plays as Fulford hit Hill on a 39-yard touchdown pass for the only score of the first quarter.
On the first drive of the second quarter Hopkins moved the ball to the Mount Union 12-yard-line before the Raider defense forced a stop of fourth down. Hopkins defense held and the Blue Jays pushed the ball deep into Mount Union territory again but a pass tipped by Brown was returned by Cox 90 yards for a score to put the Purple Raiders up 14-0. It set a school playoff record for the longest interception return.
Hopkins got on the board with a defensive score of their own as Jake Vall-llobera forced a Fulford fumble and Robert Fletcher returned it 25 yards for a touchdown but the extra point was blocked by Louis Berry and the Purple Raiders led 14-6 at the half.
After both teams punted on their first possessions of the second half, Mount Union got the ball on its own eight-yard line and went 92 yards on seven plays as Fulford went 5-of-5 passing including a 14-yard strike to Hill and pushed the lead to 21-6.
Johns Hopkins converted an interception into another touchdown as Stuart Walters ran it in from 7 yards out and the Blue Jays made a two-point conversion to get the score to 21-13.
Johns Hopkins got the stop it needed on defense and took the ball to the Mount Union 24-yard line where Brown picked off a pass and took it back 76 yards for a score to put the Purple Raiders up 28-13 with just under five minutes to go.
The Blue Jays rallied moving 77 yards on four plays and Walters punched it in from one yard out to get the score to 28-20, but Mount Union’s Luke Herrington recovered the onside kick and and the Purple Raiders ran out the clock.
Johns Hopkins finishes the season at 12-2, including its first semifinal appearance.
Blue Jays quarterback David Tammaro was 27-of-40 for 250 yards before being injured in the fourth quarter and Ryan Hubbley had 109 yards receiving on five catches.
¯ The Purple Raiders won their 13th national championship last year are trying to win consecutive titles for the first time since 2006.
¯ Junior kicker and Salem High School graduate Max Righetti averaged 52.0 yards on five kickoffs and assisted on a tackle — his first for Mount Union.
¯ At Mount Union, you never know when your turn will come. Junior fullback Joe Fornaro from West Geauga High School had a 31-yard reception to set up the Purple Raiders third-quarter score.
It was his first touch this season. Last season, he had three catches for 26 yards and one touchdown.
¯ After throwing 32 touchdown passes with one interception in the regular season, Fulford has had trouble getting going in the playoffs. In the three games since sitting out the playoff opener with an ankle injury, Fulford has completed 27 of 56 passes (48 percent) for 356 yards and five touchdowns with four interceptions.
¯ Mary Hardin-Baylor is in the Stagg Bowl for the third straight year after beating fourth-ranked Wisconsin-Whitewater, 31-14, Saturday.
The Crusaders had a 90-yard punt return by Aaron Sims, got three takeaways in the second half and Markeith Miller ran for 91 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to seal the win.
¯ Mount Union is 2-2 against Mary Hardin-Baylor, all four games in the playoffs.
¯ Mount Union has the longest winning streak in the nation at 29 games, while Mary Hardin-Baylor has won 43 of its last 44 games.