Every year, the challenge is there for the University of Mount Union football program. Get back to the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl and play for the Division III national championship.
The 2011 version of the Purple Raiders tackled that challenge head on, and as a result will head back to Salem, Va., for Stagg Bowl XXXIX.
Mount Union (14-0), ranked No. 2 by the d3football.com and American Football Coaches polls, defeated No. 7 Wesley (Del.), 28-21, on Saturday, in a national semifinal at Mount Union Stadium.
Junior quarterback Matt Piloto (Rotonda West, Fla./Lemon Bay) threw for 271 yards and four touchdowns, tying a career high, and the Purple Raiders turned two third-quarter takeaways into touchdowns, advancing to their seventh consecutive Stagg Bowl and 15th in school history.
The Stagg Bowl will be played on Friday, December 16, with a 7 p.m. kickoff on ESPN2.
Three of Piloto's scoring passes went to junior wide receiver Jasper Collins (Geneva, N.Y./Geneva), covering 26, 31 and 18 yards. Collins caught nine passes overall for 139 yards.
Senior wide receiver A.J. Claycomb (Medina/Medina) caught the other TD pass from Piloto.
"We were pretty pleased with our performance [on offense]," said Piloto. "We got off to one of our better starts which we emphasized all week."
Wesley (12-2) also moved the ball effectively, finishing with 496 total yards, but the Wolverines were done in by six turnovers. Mount Union junior defensive back Isaiah Scott (Hamilton/Fairfield) had three interceptions, senior defensive back Alex Ferrara (Independence/Walsh Jesuit) had a pick, and Wesley fumbles were recovered by junior defensive back Alex Nicholls (Galion/Galion) and sophomore defensive lineman Matt Fechko (Twinsburg/Twinsburg).
"I think we had to adjust to their speed," said Mount Union junior defensive back Nick Driskill (Wabash, Ind./Southwood), who led the Purple Raiders with 13 tackles, including one for loss. "Their quarterback is a really good player."
Wesley senior QB Shane McSweeny was 19 of 33 for 350 yards and two touchdowns, and he rushed for an additional 62 yards. Running back Askia Jahad added 77 yards on the ground, but his fumble on the first play of the second half gave Mount Union the ball at the Wolverines' 39. Seven plays later Piloto found Claycomb in the corner of the end zone, and a two-point conversion gave Mount Union a 21-14 lead with 12:04 left in the third quarter.
"We definitely left some plays on the field," said Wesley coach Mike Drass. "We wish we could have had some of them back. Defenisively, even after the turnovers, we have to step up, but we couldn't keep them out of the end zone."
The Purple Raiders struck first, taking the opening kickoff and driving 79 yards in seven plays, with Piloto hitting Collins over the middle from 26 yards out. Collins broke a tackle at the 2 before getting into the end zone. The extra point was missed, leaving Mount Union ahead 6-0.
Wesley answered on its first drive, moving 65 yards in 11 plays, with quarterback McSweeny diving in from the 1. Dan Tryon's extra point gave the Wolverines a 7-6 lead with 5:22 remaining in the opening quarter.
The drive was momentarily stopped when McSweeny was intercepted by Scott, but Scott fumbled the ball on the return and Wesley recovered.
Mount Union regained the lead with a six-play, 71-yard drive, with Piloto hitting Collins in the right corner of the end zone from 31 yards out. Tyler Almeida's extra point made it 13-7 for the Purple Raiders with 2:38 left in the quarter.
After an exchange of punts, Wesley struck quickly to regain the lead. McSweeny found Matt Barile behind the secondary and hit him in stride for a 70-yard touchdown, and Tryon's extra point made it 14-13 in favor of Wesley with 8:45 left in the first half.
Each team had scoring chances but were turned away. Wesley twice had the ball inside the Mount Union 15, but McSweeny was intercepted — again — by Scott in the end zone, and Tryon's 32-yard field goal missed wide left.
The Purple Raiders got the ball in the final minute and three Murray runs for 49 yards, and a personal foul penalty on Wesley, allowed Mount Union to attempt a 32-yard field goal, which was blocked by the Wolverines' Tyler Hardy.
McSweeny lost a fumble on Wesley's second possession of the third quarter, and Mount Union responded with a five-play, 42-yard drive, Piloto hitting Collins from 18 yards out. Almeida's extra point made it 28-14 with 7:19 remaining in the third quarter.
Wesley closed the score to 28-21 on an 81-yard pass and run from McSweeny to Matt Barile, and Tryon's extra point, with 13:30 remaining in the game.
But the Purple Raiders stopped Wesley on two fourth down plays on their next possessions, and Scott ended the Wolverines' final drive with his third interception of the game.
"We played a good second half of defense today," said Mount Union coach Larry Kehres. "In the first half we were very average.
"Offensively, we got off to a good start, but we're still trying to put together an entire game."