Think of the greatest rivalries in sports: Duke-North Carolina. Red Sox-Yankees. Lakers-Celtics. Now throw them all out the window, because none can match the remarkable feud that was Mount Union and UW-Whitewater battling it out for Div. III supremacy in the Stagg Bowl.
Between 2005 and 2014, the two Div. III powerhouses met nine times in the national championship game, named for coaching legend Amos Alonzo Stagg. By contrast, the Yankees and Red Sox played in three ALCS since the series’ inception in 1969. Duke and North Carolina have never met in a Final Four.
The Warhawks and Purple Raiders even surpassed the total of Lakers-Celtics NBA Finals during that rivalry’s heyday, when the two played seven times from 1959 through 1969. Were it not for two St. Thomas runs to the Stagg Bowl in 2012 and 2015, the Mount Union/UW-Whitewater rivalry would trail Lakers/Celtics Finals by just one.
Whereas other rivalries are forged on bad blood, Mount Union and UW-Whitewater have mutual respect. So said Purple Raiders head coach Vince Kehres in 2014.
UW-Whitewater is now 0-for-2 on Stagg Bowl pursuits since Lance Leipold left for Buffalo after winning his sixth national championship that 2014 campaign. Still, the rivalry endured in a semifinal matchup.
This year truly marks the end of an era. Neither Mount Union nor UW-Whitewater will play in Friday’s Stagg Bowl. The two programs didn’t see each other during the regular season, either, making this the first season since 2012 without a meeting at any point.
They still managed to share a cosmic connection of sorts. UW-Whitewater bowed out of the 2016 Div. III Playoffs in the quarterfinals, dropping a 31-14 decision to John Carroll. The Blue Streak stunned Mount Union on the road in the regular-season finale, 31-24.
Knocking off both UW-Whitewater and Mount Union in the same season is, on its own, cause to commission a trophy. Such a resume also suggests a championship game appearance at bare minimum.
Alas, that’s not the fate of the Blue Streak, further illustrating the changing of the guard in D-III (for one year, at least).
John Carroll was held out of the end zone in a 10-3 semifinal loss to UW-Oshkosh. In stark contrast to its counterpart from the University of Wisconsin system, UW-Oshkosh is headed to its first-ever Stagg Bowl, and the defensively dominant effort against JCU fits the theme of the Titans’ season.
UWO enters Friday’s championship allowing just 12.9 points per game. Coincidentally, 12 is the total to which fellow finalist Mary Hardin-Baylor limited Mount Union in last weekend’s semifinal.
The Crusaders used their own stiff defense (14.4 PPG) to reach Salem for just the second time in program history. The first came in the last Stagg Bowl sans both Mount Union and UW-Whitewater, 2004, when UMHB lost to Linfield, 28-21. Between the ’04 championship game run and numerous deep, albeit ill-fated, Playoff appearances, Mary Hardin-Baylor has been the Dr. J/Moses Malone 76ers of the ’80s Lakers/Celtics dynasties.
Of course, the Sixers got their time in the spotlight in ’83. ’16 could be UMHB’s equivalent.
Mary-Hardin Baylor brings a potent offense to counter the UW-Oshkosh, featuring two of the most prolific play-makers in Div. III. Quarterback Blake Jackson’s thrown for 3,111 yards and 35 touchdowns. Running back Markeith Miller ranks among D-3’s best at 1,472 rushing yards with 20 touchdowns.
Defensive end Teidrick Smith and his 14.5 sacks just might make him UMHB’s next Jerrell Freeman, a Crusader star-turned-NFL player. And with a kickoff return and two punt returns for touchdowns, Bryce Wilkerson is a difference maker on special teams.
UWO isn’t lacking for playmakers on its end. Defensive back Johnny Eagan has eight interceptions on the season, and running back Dylan Hecker has 16 rushing touchdowns. Still a junior, Hecker could be the cornerstone of more success to come. Quarterback Brett Casper is a junior; leading wide receiver Dom Todarello is a sophomore. So, too, is Cole Yoder, boasting five interceptions and 2.5 tackles for loss.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The UW-Whitewater and Mount Union dynasties have not exactly allowed for much upward mobility among D-3 brethren. Just getting this one title marks a monumental moment for either program — both of which are seeking their first-ever Stagg Bowl title.