Mt. Union edges N. Central 41-40 in D-III semi
A lot of numbers were staring Mount Union in the face Saturday - 16 trips to the Stagg Bowl, 19 straight Division III semifinal appearances, 28 wins in a row, 77 straight home victories.
But the only number with any significance for the Purple Raiders was 41.
With 1:38 remaining in the game, Mount Union's Kevin Burke led the offense on a game-winning scoring drive in the snow to give the Purple Raiders the 41-40 D-III playoff semifinal victory over North Central (Ill.).
Burke completed 12 of his 19 passes for 163 yards and a touchdown, but he burned North Central (13-1) with his feet, gaining 131 yards and two TDs on 28 carries.
The Raiders (14-0) were down 40-35 when they took the field late in the fourth following a 1-yard TD run from Cardinals Matt Randolph, who finished the day with 20 carries for 68 yards and three scores.
North Central was also led by Spencer Stanek, who completed 19 of 37 passes for 198 yards and two TDs, adding another 61 yards rushing on 11 attempts.
''I don't think anybody panicked when we got behind,'' Purple Raiders coach Vince Kehres said. ''It brought the guys together.''
And they weren't thinking about the history books, either.
''You don't think about numbers or records or being undefeated or any of that,'' Burke said. ''As a player, you focus on your job and you can't think about outside factors of the football game. You can't get caught up in media or numbers or glory or whatever it may be.''
It worked, because in just three plays, Mount Union took the lead for good, with Burke completing the 26-yard TD pass to Mike Collichio. The double-move down the right sideline was the first touchdown of the sophomore receiver's career.
''Once I heard the play call,'' Collichio said, ''I knew it was six.''
The Purple Raiders reached their 17th Stagg Bowl, but North Central gave them everything they could handle in their first semifinal appearance. Mount Union will face the winner of the Wisconsin-Whitewater versus Mary Hardin-Baylor semifinal on Dec. 20.
''I wanted to get some red in the championship game,'' Cardinals coach John Thorne said. ''Awful lot of purple in there the last few years. We just couldn't get it done.''
Down 27-16 in the third quarter, North Central scored three times - including a fumble recovery in the end zone - to take a 34-27 lead.
Mount Union answered with a 15-yard TD run from Logan Nemeth and a successful 2-point conversion run from Burke, who leaped over the left pylon to lead 35-34.
''I'm not really known for my hops, but you're gonna do it. You're gonna sacrifice yourself for the team,'' Burke said.
The resilient Cardinals answered again for the 40-35 lead with 1:38 remaining, but a failed 2-point conversion (along with two previous blocked extra points and another missed extra point attempt) gave the Purple Raiders their window.
Though not exactly the offensive spectacle it was expected to be thanks to a constant snowfall that played a major factor, it was still a back-and-forth, unpredictable and sometimes sloppy game.
Only one thing mattered in the end.
''We had 41 and they had 40,'' Kehres said.