ALLIANCE, Ohio – Quarterback Kevin Burke (Westlake/Lakewood St. Edward) threw a touchdown pass with just over a minute to play to rally No. 1 ranked Mount Union to a 41-40 win over No. 4 North Central (Ill.) in the semifinals of the NCAA Division III Football Playoffs on a snowy Saturday at Mount Union Stadium in Alliance.
Mount Union extends the nation's longest winning streak to 29 games, wins its 77th straight home game and advances to the championship game – the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl -- for the ninth straight time and 17th time in the last 20 years.
The Raiders will play The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater – a 16-15 winner at Mary Hardin-Baylor (Texas) in the other semifinal – next Friday night at 7 pm in Salem, Va. It will be the eighth time in nine seasons the two teams meet in the national title game.
Just 31 seconds earlier, North Central (13-1) had taken a 40-35 lead when Matt Randolph ran it in from one-yard out to set up Burke's heroics as he drove 65 yards in three plays with the last of those a 26-yard touchdown pass to Mike Collichio (Webster/Webster Schroeder). For Collichio, a sophomore, it was the first touchdown reception of his career.
Snow began falling about an hour before kickoff and intensified throughout a game that featured eight lead changes – four in the fourth quarter.
Aside from tossing that touchdown pass, Burke rushed for a game-high 131 yards and two touchdowns – which gives him a school single-season record 1,035 rushing yards.
Freshman running back Bradley Mitchell (St. Clair Shores, Mich./South Lake) also rushed for 100 yards for the Raiders as he had 124 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. Mitchell has now rushed over 100 yards in eight games and the last seven games in a row.
Linebacker Jonathan Gonell (Pembroke Pines, Fla./University School, Fla.) had a career-high 13 tackles and returned an interception 37 yards with 5:07 to go in the second quarter that gave Mount Union a 20-16 halftime lead.
The interception was just the second of the season for North Central quarterback Spencer Stanek. Stanek, who entered the day as the nation's top rated passer, completed 19-of-37 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns.
Both those touchdowns went to Peter Sorenson, who caught 10 passes for 119 yards while Matt Randolph came off the bench and scored three touchdowns on 68 yards rushing to lead the Cardinal offense.
Nick Slezak had 21 tackles for the North Central defense.
North Central failed to convert a pair of two-point conversions and had two extra points blocked by Sherman Wilkinson (Kettering/Fairmont).
The Cardinals took the game's opening drive and Stanek hit Sorenson on a three-yard touchdown pass to lead 7-0. Mount Union then tied the game on the ensuing possession as Burke went 78 yards on four plays and ran it in from 24 yards. North Central then drove to the Raiders' 11 yard line before settling for a 28-yard Nick Dace field goal and retook the lead and Mount Union responded as Mitchell scored on a nine-yard run and the Raiders led 13-10 at the end of the first quarter.
Stanek found Sorenson again from 11 yards this time as the Cardinals reclaimed the lead but missed the extra point to lead 16-13 with 7:51 left in the half. Gonell's interception finished the first half scoring with his interception return.
Mount Union took the second half kickoff and went 79 yards on 13 plays and Burke scored from three yards out to push the Raiders lead to 27-16.
North Central came back with a long drive of its own going 79 yards on 14 plays with Randolph scoring on a one-yard touchdown run but the extra point was blocked to make it 27-22 with 3:40 to go in the third quarter.
Randolph gave North Central the lead back with a one-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter but a two-point conversion was no good and the Cardinals led 28-27.
After both teams trade possession, Mount Union facing a fourth and nine from its own 24 sees the long snap go over the punters head and it was recorded in the end zone by Kolton Kuczynski for a North Central touchdown but the extra point was no good that put the Cardinals in front 34-27.
Mount Union answered again with a six minute drive that saw backup running back Logan Nemeth (McBain, Mich./McBain) run for 25 yards including a 15-yard touchdown scamper to bring the Raiders within a point – 34-33. Burke then ran in the two point conversion diving for the pylon from the three yard line for a 35-34 lead with five minutes left.
Stanek then led the Cardinals down the field in seven plays over 3:13 and Randolph punched it in from one-yard out but the two-point conversion was no good and North Central led 40-35 with 1:38 to play.
Burke covered 65 yards in three plays all in the air with a 20-yard pass to Nemeth, a 19-yard strike to Luc Meacham (Toledo/Toledo Central Catholic) before the 26-yard pass to Collichio.
North Central drove to the Mount Union 45-yard line before four-straight incompletions ended the game.