On to the final four: Johns Hopkins football advances to first NCAA semifinal with 37-14 win over RPI

For The Baltimore Sun

Playing behind one of the nation’s most dominant offensive lines, Johns Hopkins quarterback David Tammaro sees his job in simple terms.

“It’s kind of like, just get the ball into a playmaker’s hands and let them do their thing,” the junior from Chantilly, Va., said.

In Saturday’s NCAA Division III quarterfinal, Tammaro did just that, while also being the Blue Jays’ most dangerous all-around weapon. He passed for 284 yards and a touchdown and ran for another 81 yards and a score, as No. 13 Johns Hopkins racked up 521 yards in a 37-14 win over No. 23 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Homewood Field.

Running back Stuart Walters added 115 rushing yards and two touchdowns, as the Blue Jays advanced to the national semifinals for the first time in program history.

Johns Hopkins (12-1) moves on to face top-ranked Mount Union (13-0), a 38-10 quarterfinal winner over Muhlenberg, with a trip to the national championship game on the line. The site of the game won't officially be announced until Sunday, but will most likely be on Mount Union’s campus in Alliance, Ohio.

For Blue Jays coach Jim Margraff, a former quarterback at Johns Hopkins now in his 29th season leading his alma mater, it will be one sweet road trip.

“I don’t reflect very much on a lot of things,” Margraff said. “But to take a moment and [think about] where we were when I was a player, where we were when we first got here in 1990, to being one of the final four teams in the country … it’s really exciting for us. That’s as much as we’ll think about it. We’ll enjoy this tonight, then get to work on the No. 1 team in the country tomorrow.”

Still, there’s plenty to enjoy.

The Blue Jays now have their most wins in the history of a program that dates to 1882, and are 43-5 since their current senior class arrived in 2015.

To accomplish that, they first had to stop an RPI team fresh off last week’s road upset of No. 3 Brockport.

But on this day, the Engineers (10-2) struggled to move the ball, particularly on the ground. Johns Hopkins’ defense, led by freshman linebacker Robert Fletcher (17 tackles, three for loss), held RPI to 42 rushing yards — 111 under its season average — and limited leading rusher Nick Cella to 12 yards on 13 carries.

“We knew they ran a lot of zone, a lot of sweeps over the top, so we had to play fast and hit our holes quick,” Fletcher said. “The D-line did an amazing job plugging the holes. They made great opportunities for us linebackers.”

Offensively, Tammaro (26-for-41, 284 yards) and Walters helped Hopkins break a 7-7 tie with 17 straight points to take command, while avoiding the game-changing turnovers RPI had forced in previous wins.

“We got beat by a very good team,” Engineers coach Ralph Isernia said. “The thing that we’ve done the last number of games, what’s been successful for us, was turning teams over, playing with a short field and being opportunistic on offense. Today, the better team won.”

After each team put together touchdown drives in the first quarter, Hopkins took control with 10 straight points to finish the half.

Paced by the accurate passing and timely running of Tammaro, the Blue Jays drove 65 yards on 14 plays, capped by Walters' 3-yard run up the middle to put them up 14-7.

“It looked like, on film, they played a lot of soft zone,” Tammaro said. “The box was kind of wide open from my perspective. When my initial reads weren’t there, I thought I could get something done on the ground with my feet today, and that’s what I kind of did.”

RPI threatened to answer before the Blue Jays defense came up big on back-to-back plays. First, with quarterback George Marinopoulos struggling to find an open receiver on third-and-10 from the Johns Hopkins 22, defensive lineman Kyle Roberts swooped in after several seconds to record the coverage sack.

Then, on fourth down, pressure forced Marinopoulos to overthrow his receiver, forcing the turnover on downs.

The Blue Jays then tacked on a 31-yard field goal by Mike Eberle seconds before halftime to extend the lead to 10.

The late score was key for Hopkins, which then took the second-half kickoff and marched 78 yards on 13 plays. When running back Hogan Irwin scored off-tackle from the 2 to cap the drive, Hopkins had a 24-7 lead.

“It’s all due to our offensive line,” Walters said. “They’ve been playing extremely well. In practice, the holes were hit the same way they hit today in the game. I just kind of trusted them and ran to green grass.”

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