Mount Union seniors have a job to finish

Nick Driskill is busy this week. One last game as Mount Union’s vocal, on-field leader awaits the senior safety, bringing with it all the preparation, nerves and obligations that come with Division III college football’s one fleeting moment on the national stage.

Still, Driskill has allowed his mind to wander, ever so briefly, about why the team Mount Union will face Friday night isn’t the team it has faced in the last three Stagg Bowls.  

It’s personal.

In four years at Mount Union, the seniors are 56-3. All three losses have come in Salem, Va., in the Stagg Bowl — Division’s III national championship game. All three have come to Wisconsin-Whitewater. Mount Union’s opponent Friday night is St. Thomas (Minn.), snapping an incredible streak of seven straight Mount Union vs. Wisconsin-Whitewater Stagg Bowls.

“I’ll admit I spent a minute wishing it was Whitewater,” Driskill said. “But then I got my head right. It doesn’t matter who we play. The bottom line is we’ve made three straight trips to Salem and three times we’ve had miserable rides home without the trophy.

“We come here to win. We haven’t done that in the last three trips. Why wouldn’t that consume every one of us?”

The best way to understand the angst Driskill, his teammates and every member of Mount Union’s coaching staff are feeling this week is to understand Mount Union’s longtime dominance. The last four-year class to leave Mount Union without winning a national title entered the school in 1989.

Most of this year’s players weren’t born then.

This group came to Mount Union in 2009 to win multiple Stagg Bowls, recruited by a head coach who has set an incredible standard of that whole winning thing. In 27 seasons on the job, Larry Kehres is 331-24-3. The Purple Raiders are in the Stagg Bowl for the 16th time in 20 years, their seat at the head of the Division III table across two decades in question only since last December, when Whitewater won for the fourth time in those seven head-to-head title games.

Kehres has won 10 Stagg Bowls. This class will settle for one.

“It’s all or nothing for us,” senior wide receiver Jasper Collins said. “It’s a senior-heavy team. We have great players, great leaders. All season, it’s been one goal. And that one goal and that one game is here.”

Such goals are realistic, and those losses — even if they come just every once in a while — sting more because they’re just so rare. The absurd level and frequency of winning doesn’t spoil anyone, those involved say, instead pushing the next group to continue the legacy and raise the bar even higher.

“Honestly, I didn’t care if we came here (to Salem) and played Whitewater, St. Thomas or whoever,” Collins said. “It’s about revenge for the last three years. We don’t ever expect to lose. We did, and we control our own destiny to get that righted.”

Said Kehres: “Our seniors, they feel it. You can call it pressure or just trying to achieve their goal. They understand the process. They’ve paid their dues and they’ve earned their way here.”

There’s a certain charm to this dynasty. Div. III schools don’t give athletic scholarships, and for a long time almost all of the core players came from an hour or so’s drive from the Alliance, Ohio campus. Kehres lives to close enough to campus that he either walks or drives a golf cart to work. The winning has both expanded the recruiting base and recruited itself.

The names change. The dynamics change. In a place where a 56-3 stretch qualifies as disappointing, the standards keep getting higher.  

“They have used the last three losses in the Stagg Bowl as a motivational thing,” Kehres said. “They have used it positively. There has been no pouting, no moping, I have not seen them press  in a negative way. In fact, I’ve complimented them many times on how they’ve handled it.”

Almost every senior who ever has won a Stagg Bowl in a Purple Raiders uniform did so in his last football game ever. The two Mount Union alums turned drafted NFL wide receivers, Pierre Garcon of the Washington Redskins and Cecil Shorts III of the Jacksonville Jaguars, are much more exception than the rule.

“It’s win it all or nothing,” Shorts said this week. “That’s just the standard. You know that Coach Kehres is going to make the adjustments during the year to give you a chance to get there. You know the talent will be in place, and it’s on the players to get it done.

“I lost my last game. It stung. We never had any intention of losing — ever.”

Shorts said Kehres hosts postseason banquets only in years when Mount Union wins the national title.

“You get dressed up, you get mom and dad to come in, everybody smiles and celebrates,” Shorts said. “But when you don’t win it, there’s nothing. No banquets. No congratulations. It’s get back to work, get ready to win the next year.”

Friday’s game is Mount Union’s first-ever meeting with St. Thomas, whose 50 wins since the start of the 2009 season rank behind only Mount Union and Whitewater (52) in Division III. Whitewater’s 46-game win streak was snapped in a one-point loss in September. The Warhawks went on to finish the year 7-3 and missed the playoffs.

To put that incredible 46-game streak into a Mount Union context, it fell just short of Mount Union’s 55-game win streak (2000-2003) and 54-game streak (1996-99).

The list of crazy numbers and statistics continues:

• Since 2000, Mount Union is 181-7.

• Two Saturdays ago, the Purple Raiders scored 72 points in a national quarterfinal win over Widener (Pa.). That’s 15 more points than Mount Union’s men’s basketball team scored in its game later that afternoon. It was the football team’s second 72-point outburst of this year’s playoffs.

• This year’s team gave up a touchdown early in the fourth quarter at Franklin (Ind.) in the season opener on Sept. 1 and then didn’t give up another point untill Oct. 27. Not a single point in 377 minutes, 27 seconds of game time. The closest game in that stretch was 51-0.

• Kehres’ 331 career victories are fourth-most in college football history across all divisions, putting him ahead of even Bear Bryant. Mount Union’s 700th football win came earlier this year, making the school just the second Division III program and 21st program across all divisions to join the 700-win club.

Friday night, this senior class knows what club it would join with a loss. The goal, dating all the way back to last banquet-less January, has been to write a different ending this time.

“There are high expectations, and there’s a responsibility that comes with being next in line to put on this jersey, carry on the tradition,” Driskill said. “I’ve even heard from people I know that there’s some belief that at Mount, winning is easy. If it was easy, wouldn’t everybody do it?”

He makes a good point.

Friday night, he and his teammates get one last crack at the one that will define them.