Here we finally are! Its been 14 long and hard weeks in the making but finally all that blood and sweat has paid off. Welcome to Salem, Virginia and welcome to the power of the color purple. In case you’ve been living under a rock the past few years (or if you’re just stubborn like me), the fact is this: For the eighth straight year, we have a Mount Union vs. Wisconsin-Whitewater Stagg Bowl. The power of purple is once again upon us and it has the makings of once again being a great game.
Since this is a championship game I decided to do this preview a little different and break the teams down by positional grouping as opposed to by offense and defense. Hopefully this will give people more insight as they watch the game on Friday night.
Last year in this game Matt Piloti got plenty of unintended experience as Mount Union lost their starting QB during the playoffs. That experience could come up big for Piloti who struggled to get comfortable in the Stagg Bowl setting last year. He went a respectable 20 for 43 last year but through four INT’s and was in a situation where the situation was just two big for him. That was then though and this is now. Through the playoffs thus year Piloti has looked good going 60 of 93 for 706 yards, six TD’s and three INT’s. His 65% completion percentage has been key for keeping this offense moving but the two picks he threw last week v. Wesley nearly cost them the game. He must avoid those kinds of mistakes at all costs in this game.
Much like Mount Union last year, UW-Whitewater was also forced to play their backup QB in the Stagg Bowl. Matt Blanchard went down in the final game of the regular season last year and backup Lee Brekke was forced to lead this team. This will be Blanchard’s first Stagg Bowl so it will be interesting to see how he responds in that environment. If his playoff performance is any clue then he should be close to lights out. Blanchard has only thrown three INT’s all season long and he has yet to be picked off in these playoffs. He’s a senior this year so this is his last shot to win a Stagg Bowl and don’t think he’s not taking that into consideration.
When you talk about running back at the Division III level one name that doesn’t always come up but should more often is that of Jeremy Murray. All Murray has done this year is run for over 1,600 yards and 20 TD’s. He has been the workhorse for this team all year long and I’d expect that to not change one bit as we head into the Stagg Bowl.
For as much as Murray may get over looked its Levell Coppage who gets all the love at the Division III level. Coppage is a three time 2,000+ yard RB and has been the definition of what a game breaker is at the Division III level. Coppage has the speed to turn the corner and the loose hips to make people miss in the open field. He went off in last year’s Stagg Bowl running for 299 yards and three TD’s on the way to a 31-21 victory.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends:
When Piloto drops back to throw the ball he has three main targets he’ll look for in Jasper Collins, AJ Claycomb and Chris Denton. Collins is the clear cut go to guy and has assumed the role vacated by Cecil Shorts III after he graduated. Collins has hauled in 58 passes for 776 yards and 12 TD’s this season. Claycomb and Denton have combined to be very strong complimentary players who have given defenses that lack depth in their defensive backfield fits. Together those two have caught 93 passes for 1,214 yards and nine TD’s. The Mount Union depth at this position is an under sold commodity but make no mistake about it, if Mount Union is forced to throw the ball, they have the weapons to beat the Warhawks with.
This may be the weakest area on this UW-Whitewater team due to a scarcity of depth. Their top WR, Tyler Huber, is amongst the top WR’s in the country. He went over 1,200 yards and had 10 TD’s this year. However behind Huber is a mish mash of four different WR’s who have all had varying degrees of success for Blanchard. Luke Menzel is the #2 WR in terms of catches and yards, but he has not been much of a threat to score with only two TD’s on the year. The second ranked pass catcher in terms of TD’s has been Bernie Tamsett who has caught one TD for every four catches he’s made (5:20). If UW-Whitewater had to get away from Coppage late in the game they could be in for some trouble.
Mount Union must ask for more out of this game than what their offensive line has offered the past few weeks. The past three weeks this team is only averaging 149 yards per game on the ground which is nearly 100 yards under their season average of 238. They need to get more out of this line if they hope to establish Murray v. this defense.
Any time you have a back as successful as Coppage is, you have to at least have a good offensive line that can blast open holes and get the back into the second level. Not only does this offensive line average over 225 rushing yards per game it also only allows 0.64 sacks per game which is good enough for ninth overall nationally.
The weak spot of this team couldn’t quite come at a worse position than it does in the trenches. That’s one of the reasons that Charles Dieuseul moved down to DE. His ability to bring pressure off the edge has been a huge boost to a DL that has made only 8.5 sacks combined to Dieuseul’s nine sacks by himself. If Mount Union cannot use its line to control the gaps and cut down on the running lanes Coppage will have to choose from then they have no hope to win this game.
The Warhawk DL is led by DE Casey Casper and DT Jake Keeser, both of these players lead the team in sacks and rank second and third in tackles for loss. Getting after the run is what these guys specialize in as they are holding opponents to just over 90 yards a game on the ground and do a good job playing fundamentally sound gap control defense.
While the front four for Mount Union may be their weakest unit this LB core may not be too far behind it. Granted they are assisted greatly by the presence of SS Nick Driskill in the box. However as a unit by itself it leaves a lot to be desired. Only one LB ranks in the top five on the team in tackles (Jorge Carbonell) and no LB has more than 1.5 sacks on the year. To give credit where credit is due however Carbonell has been very effective in ready run plays and getting into the backfield. He has 10.5 TFL on his own this year.
Kyle Wismer leads the way for this Warhawk unit with 65 tackles to lead the team. He’s a read and react LB who flows well to the ball and will be the man asked to minimize Jeremy Murray’s impact on the game. Ryan Cortez is the team leader in tackles for loss and does a good job of anticipating where plays are going, hitting the gaps and making big stops. Greg Arnold is the third member of this crew and he has provided solid coverage in this year’s playoffs picking off three passes already.
The best player on this team may very well be SS Nick Driskill. The doing everything DB for Mount Union leads the team in tackles (105) and is second on the team in INT’s (4), sacks (6.5), and TFL (17). Driskill’s ability to make plays all over the football field definitely help him to cover for the rest of a defense that I think has holes. Will or how many of those holes will Driskill be able to mask on Friday night may be the determining factor in who wins this game.
While Levell Coppage is without question the biggest playmaker on this team the second biggest is definitely CB Noah Timm. The junior is fourth on the team in tackles 52 and leads the team in INT’s with seven and pass breakups with 11. His ability to play v. the run and pass make the job of every other defender so much easier. Timm has the ability to lock down an entire side of the field and his matchup v. Collins could be one to watch. Behind Timm both physically in alignment and in impact plays this years is DB Ryan Wenkman. Wenkman is second on the team in tackles with 62 and in INT’s with six. He’ll be a big part of how UW-Whitewater tries to stop Mount Union’s depth at the WR position.
Give me the Warhawks to make it three straight over the Purple Knights. I don’t know how close this game will be and I think that if UWW can get Coppage rolling the difference could be a lot higher than the 10 points that they last two games have been decided by.
For all his opinion, analysis and insight on small-school football, be sure to follow Matt Elder on Twitter @MatthewCElder.