Championship tilt

UMHB’s Bryce Wilkerson (1) runs the ball during last week’s NCAA Division III semifinal last week against Brockport in Belton.

SALEM, Va. — It’s the reigning king vs. the longtime ruler. The rising power vs. the old guard. It’s Stagg Bowl XLV, where Mary Hardin-Baylor will establish itself as the new powerhouse in NCAA Division III, or Mount Union will continue its stretch of dominance.

Those are the only possible outcomes tonight at Salem Stadium.

“Any time you play Mount Union, you have to really play a great game to have an opportunity to be successful, so that’s what our plan is,” UMHB coach Pete Fredenburg said. “Our guys are poised and understand what the job at hand is.”

The job at hand for the No. 1-ranked Crusaders (14-0) is to defend their national title by fighting off the second-ranked and 12-time champion Purple Raiders (14-0), who are making their 20th appearance in the Stagg Bowl. It’s a tall order, but one from which the Crusaders aren’t shying away.

“Just because we won it last year doesn’t mean we’re taking it for granted, but we’re also not intimidated by the situation,” UMHB senior cornerback Kris Brown said. “I’m expecting it to be a great game.”

It won’t be the first time UMHB has collided with the power from Alliance, Ohio. The Crusaders have a 2-1 record against the Purple Raiders, including a 14-12 victory in last year’s semifinal round in Belton on the way to their first crown. Mount Union earned its way back to Salem with a 43-40 comeback win over Wisconsin-Oshkosh last Saturday and now faces the team that ended its season a year ago.

“Wisconsin-Oshkosh is a great football team, and Mary Hardin-Baylor is a great football team. The challenge this time of year is to try to string together two outstanding performances against the two best teams you’re going to play all year, and to do it in six days,” Mount Union coach Vince Kehres said. “As big of a win and as emotional of a game as that was last week, the key for us is to make sure it’s behind us so that we’re totally focused on Mary Hardin-Baylor.”

UMHB will have to keep the Purple Raiders from getting on a roll offensively, as they did last week in the second half when sophomore quarterback D’Angelo Fulford engineered five touchdown drives over the final 21 minutes. Fulford has thrown for 2,959 yards and 49 TDs with only three interceptions this season, and he has three receivers with at least 45 catches and 11 touchdowns each. They fuel a Mount Union attack that averages 492 yards and 53 points per game.

“They’re very difficult to defend because they are so talented and have so many different tools. The critical thing for us is to line up correctly to their formations so that our guys have a chance to react and make plays,” Fredenburg said. “They have a very versatile and dynamic quarterback, a great running back, good offensive linemen and some skilled receivers. We understand that, but we also know we have some good football players on our side of the ball.”

The Crusaders defense — anchored by the all-senior line of tackles Haston Adams and Brazos Fuller and ends Ajay Fanene and Jordan Millar — gives up only 223 yards and seven points per game.

Kehres respects the talent on UMHB’s defense but doesn’t believe his players will be intimidated.

“We have to identify ways that we can attack them, and there’s certainly not a lot of obvious weaknesses on their defense,” he said. “But we are a confident group and we have to find some ways to move the chains and put some points on the board. Their guys are going to put on their pants the same way we do. That’s our approach to it.”

UMHB’s offense, which produced touchdown drives of more than 40 yards only four times over the previous three weeks, will need to put together some time-consuming scoring possessions tonight. Freshman quarterback Carl Robinson III will make his seventh start and has weapons in receivers T.J. Josey and Bryce Wilkerson. Robinson’s poise and decision-making, along with getting some production on the ground from running back Markeith Miller, will be vital to the Crusaders’ success.

“Carl is going to have to play very poised in order to allow us the opportunity to be successful, and I think he has a good supporting cast that knows what to expect and understands the significance of the game,” Fredenburg said. “It’s going to be difficult to establish the run because Mount Union is really going to stack the line of scrimmage, but we have to give Markeith opportunities to make plays running the ball.”

While UMHB has given up more than seven points only four times all season, Mount Union yielded 77 points over its last two games alone. Don’t be fooled by those numbers, though. The Purple Raiders are giving up an average of just 253 yards and 14 points per outing.

“We have various schemes that we can use to match up with different styles and types of opponents,” Kehres said. “We have players who can tackle and make plays sideline to sideline.”

The outcome should hinge on whether Mount Union can handle UMHB’s pass rush, and whether the Crusaders can sustain enough drives to help keep the Purple Raiders offense off the field.

It’s No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the country for the national championship. There’s not much more anyone could ask for.

“We’re embracing every second of this opportunity,” Brown said. “This is the last game of the season no matter what the outcome is, and we want to go out on top again.”

NOTES: Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. and the game will be televised nationally on ESPNU. . . . The forecast for today calls for a high temperature of 42 degrees and a low of 30. . . . At the championship banquet Thursday night, UMHB punter Zane Boles received the NCAA’s Elite 90 award for the second straight year. The award is given to the player with the highest cumulative grade-point average at each of the NCAA’s 90 championships. . . . Also Thursday, UMHB had four players earn Associated Press Little All-America Division III honors. Brown, Adams, senior offensive tackle Corbin Campitelli and senior receiver/kick returner Wilkerson received first-team honors.

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