- Associated Press - Friday, December 17, 2010

As rivalries go, there may be none in team sports that routinely has stakes as high as those on the line when Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater meet in football.

The teams will play for the record sixth consecutive season in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, with the winner leaving Salem, Va., Saturday as the Division III national champion.

No other football teams in NCAA history have reached the championship game six years in a row, and only Division III Augustana, Ill., also played in five straight from 1982 to 1986.

Familiarity with the high stakes, it seems, breeds comfort.

“It’s a business trip,” Wisconsin-Whitewater offensive lineman Matt Weber, a senior, said this week of his fourth trip to Salem. “We’re here to play and win in a football game.”

Wisconsin-Whitewater (14-0) won last year, 38-28. The Warhawks also won the title in 2007, and have won 29 games in a row _ and 56 of 59 _ under fourth-year coach Lance Leipold.

Still, they were not even the top seed in their region of the tournament this year, and had to win at North Central two weeks ago, and then at Wesley last week, to get here.

“I think we have a little chip on our shoulder playing,” wide receiver Aaron Rusch said. “Whether we’re on the road or at home, we’ll be giving it our all and I know we’ll be well prepared. … We’re here now and we’ll do what we can to get a win on Saturday.”

For all the gaudiness of Leipold’s .949 career winning percentage as a coach, Mount Union coach Larry Kehres has a similar percentage _ .927 on 303-22-3 _ built over 25 years.

The Purple Raiders (14-0) have also won 10 national championships under Kehres.

“What Larry’s done has definitely stood the test of time,” Leipold said.

The similarities don’t end there, either.

Mount Union leads the nation in total defense, allowing just 197 yards per game, and scoring defense, allowing 7.4 points per game. Whitewater isn’t far behind, ranking seventh in total defense (241 yards per game) and fourth in scoring defense (11.1 points per game).

Both teams also earned their way to Salem behind backup quarterbacks.

The Warhawks lost their starter, Matt Blanchard, in their regular-season finale, and have used sophomore Lee Brekke throughout the playoffs. Blanchard, with 20 touchdowns and just one interception, could have played last week, but Leipold isn’t sure he’ll make the change.

“Lee Brekki has been a pleasant surprise,” he said of the backup who had thrown for 10 touchdowns and four interceptions in four playoff games.

The Warhawks also hope that tailback Levell Coppage, who has run for more than 1,800 yards and scored 22 touchdowns, will be available despite a hand injury.

Through the air, the quarterback looks most often toward Rusch, who had 87 receptions for 1,037 yards and 14 touchdowns, and Adam Brandes, whose 60 reception include 12 touchdowns.

The Purple Raiders, meanwhile, lost quarterback Neal Seamen in the opening series last week, and Kehres turned to sophomore Matt Piloto in their 34-14 victory against Bethel.

“He played well,” Kehres said. “He didn’t make any mistakes, big mistakes. He was a little jittery on his first few series, but he settled in, made some good throws and I think the team got excited, got behind him, and we were happy with how he played.”

The Mount also has a prolific ground game led by Jeremy Murray, who has run for 1,591 yards and 20 touchdowns, and a favorite target for whoever is behind center in Cecil Shorts. He has 63 receptions for 1,106 yards and 17 touchdowns, and he’s missed three games.

Inexperience has been more of an issue for Mount Union this season after a mass exodus of seniors off last year’s team, but Kehres said young players remember last year, too.

“I tried to get the guys not to jump ahead and talk about the Stagg Bowl,” Kehres said of his team’s motivation, “but in the back of their mind, certainly we lost last year, and when you lose in the Stagg Bowl or the playoffs, you want to get back the next year.”

It’s all the better, Shorts said, to find Wisconsin-Whitewater waiting for them again.

“When somebody beats you, you want revenge,” he said.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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