This time, it’s the playoffs: Underdog W&J gets another look at Mount Union

November 21, 2013
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Courtesy of Martin Santek Photography
The Washington & Jefferson College football team’s reward for winning the Presidents’ Athletic Conference championship is a first-round playoff game Saturday at defending NCAA Division III national champion Mount Union.
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Katie Roupe/Observer-Reporter
With quarterback Matt Bliss sidelined by an injury, W&J will need a big game from running back Dion Wiegand Saturday against Mount Union in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs. Order a Print

If Mike Sirianni wants to motivate his football players, maybe he can show them one of the “Rocky” movies or “Miracle,” the film about the 1980 United States hockey team upsetting the Russians and winning the gold medal in the Winter Olympics.

It can’t hurt.

Washington & Jefferson College will head into Saturday’s first-round NCAA Division III playoff game against Mount Union as a prohibitive underdog.

Kickoff is at noon in Alliance, Ohio.

One power ranking index lists Mount Union as a 30-point favorite, and the Purple Raiders already own a 55-0 win over W&J in the first round of the 2009 playoffs. The last time W&J won a playoff game was in 2008, 35-29 over Millsaps.

“I told our kids that we are one of only 32 teams in the playoffs,” said Sirianni, the Presidents head coach. “I’m not going to hide the fact that I’m mad at the (NCAA) committee for (the seeding process). But we are going to try to win this game.”

Mount Union is an 11-time national champion and won the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, the Division III championship game, last season, the final one in Larry Kehres’ legendary career as head coach. W&J has made two trips to the Stagg Bowl – in 1992 and 1994 – and is making its second consecutive playoff appearance.

“We scrimmaged them, so we have a good idea as to the type of team they are,” said Vince Kehres, who took over for his father and has led the Purple Raiders to a 10-0 record and the conference title in the Ohio Athletic Conference.

“They are a physical team, and they got after us in the scrimmage. I’m impressed with their offensive line, and I am always impressed with their passing game.”

If Mount Union got the final part of the August scrimmage on film, it might come in handy because that was when Pete Coughlin received playing time. Coughlin will step in as quarterback after W&J lost Matt Bliss for the season with a concussion in the first quarter of last week’s victory over Waynesburg that gave W&J a share of the Presidents’ Athletic Conference title and the automatic berth in the playoffs. This will be the Presidents’ 23rd appearance in the NCAA playoffs; only Mount Union, with 25, has more.

That means tailback Dion Wiegand, who has rushed for 1,265 yards and 25 touchdowns, and wide receiver Alex Baroffio, the school’s career leader in receptions with 257, will have to make plays.

Mount Union is coming off a 42-34 win over John Carroll in a game that decided the OAC championship. Mount Union led 35-13 before John Carroll mounted a second-half comeback. Quarterback Kevin Burkes had a great game for the Purple Raiders, passing for 374 yards and three TDs without an interception, and rushing for two short-yardage touchdowns, including the game-winner with 6:22 left.

“Mount Union has a great leader at quarterback,” Sirianni said. “We have to try to control him as much as we can. We’ve never played against him. We scrimmaged them, but he doesn’t run the ball there.”

Burke has thrown for 2,547 yards and rushed for 726. Bradley Mitchell leads the team with 768 yards rushing, but didn’t break into the starting lineup until midseason.

“Burke’s development started last year,” Vince Kehres said. “We eased him into the offense. We tried not to put too much of the decision-making process on him. And still, he led the nation in passing efficiency.”

Burke is a junior and Mitchell a freshman.

“He’s new, and we had some good depth at running back,” Kehres said. “It took a few weeks before we settled on him.”

Mount Union’s defense allows only 227 yards per game and just 70 on the ground. Most impressive, the Purple Raiders’ top six tacklers are underclassmen.

“We have five starters who are sophomores,” Kehres said. “That’s somewhat unusual for us. Most of them started last year and got experience.”

So, how do you stop a team like this?

“We’re going there with the mentality that we can win this game,” Sirianni said. “And we are not looking for moral victories.”

Joe Tuscano has been with the Observer-Reporter since 1980. He has covered all sports for the newspaper, including the Steelers, Pirates, Pitt football, local college football and wrestling. He has worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Jeannette News-Dispatch and North Hills Record. He graduated from Duquesne University in 1980.

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