Johns Hopkins head coach Jim Margraff knew field goals were not going to win a national semifinal game, let alone one against 13-time Division III national football champion Mount Union.
So when the Blue Jays drove the ball inside the Purple Raiders’ red zone twice in the second quarter, there was no hesitation to go for it both times instead of kicking the ball. Not only did Johns Hopkins fail to get any points on either drive, they watched Mount Union’s prolific defense strike.
And later they did it again.
The Purple Raiders entered the game with 13 defensive touchdowns, which led all divisions of college football, and tacked two more onto that total to advance to the Division III national championship game for the 21st time with a 28-20 win over Johns Hopkins at Mount Union Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
“That’s a good defense,” Margraff said with a little chuckle.
Mount Union (14-0) got a 90-interception return from Trevor Cox in the second quarter to take a 14-0 lead. Instead of folding, the Blue Jays (12-2) regrouped to make it a game going into halftime.
Less than two minutes after Cox’s interception, Johns Hopkins got a defensive score of its own when Jake Vall-Ilobera stripped Mount Union quarterback D’Angelo Fulford in the open field and Blue Jays teammate Robert Fletcher scooped up the ball at the 25 before fighting off three Purple Raiders for the touchdown.
The extra-point attempt was blocked and Mount Union held a 14-6 lead. It stayed that way at the half, thanks to an interception by Johns Hopkins’ Michael Curry on the goal line with under two minutes remaining.
Curry added a second interception — also at the goal line — in the fourth quarter that kept Mount Union from putting the game away with about eight minutes remaining.
“It feels good when your defense gets a score,” Curry said with a big smile. “We didn’t start the game the way we wanted with a three-and-out and then blowing our coverage to let them score. But we responded well after that start.”
Mount Union grabbed an early 7-0 lead when Fulford found junior Justin Hill wide open down the home sidelines for a 39-yard touchdown.
The game stayed 7-0 until Cox grabbed a deflected ball and returned it for the longest interception return in Mount Union playoff history. The pick came on a fourth-down play and left Johns Hopkins 0-for-2 inside the red zone.
On the Blue Jays’ possession before the interception, Johns Hopkins running back Stuart Walters was stopped on fourth-and-1 at the Mount Union 12.
“There was no discussion about kicking field goals. We are not a field-goal team, we are a touchdown team,” Margraff said. “Perhaps if the distance would have been greater we would have discussed it, but we were going for it in those situations. We decided that during the week. You need touchdowns against Mount Union.”
The Blue Jays’ Harrison Wellmann returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown, but an illegal block penalty brought the ball out to the 20-yard line. Eventually, Johns Hopkins missed a 33-yard field goal.
However, Johns Hopkins got back in the game shortly after with its defensive touchdown.
Mount Union ultimately put the game away in the fourth quarter. Johns Hopkins quarterback David Tammaro was hit as he threw the ball and it floated into the hands of Purple Raiders defensive back Gabe Brown, who returned it 76 yards for a touchdown and a 28-13 lead with 4:51 remaining.
“See ball, get ball,” Brown said. “I thought it was just a bad ball. I didn’t know he got hit. I just got my hands on it, screamed and then ran for the end zone.”
Tammaro left the game after that with an injury. He finished 27-for-40 for 250 yards but two costly interceptions.
“I would definitely like to have that ball back,” Tammaro said after the game.
Tammaro’s backup, Nick Leongas, guided the Blue Jays down the field and Walters punched it in from the 1-yard line with 1:56 left to make it a one-score game.
But Mount Union recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock to secure its spot in Friday night’s national championship game in Shenandoah, Texas.
Meanwhile, Johns Hopkins was left with some positives and negatives from its season-ending loss. The Blue Jays led Division III in total offense and averaged almost 48 points per game this season, but they were playing in the semifinal for the first time. The Purple Raiders were making their 24th straight trip to the final four.
“Certainly playoff experience counts for something. You look at the four teams playing today and they all have playoff experience,” Mount Union coach Vince Kehres said. “It helps to keep your poise in situations and know there’s still a lot of football left if a play doesn’t go your way.”
Johns Hopkins certainly didn’t go away. The Blue Jays took a couple of haymakers from Mount Union and got back up.
“I am so proud of our effort today and really all season. We fought back every time we had some adversity,” Margraff said. “But losing always hurts.”