SALEM — While Bridgewater came up three points short of a dream season, Chuck Moore’s Mount Union career couldn’t have ended in a more perfect manner.
The senior tailback, who earlier in the week accepted the Gagliardi Trophy as the top player in Division III football, led the Purple Raiders to their sixth Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl championship since 1993 by rushing 34 times for 273 yards and three touchdowns in a 30-27 win over the Eagles on Saturday night.
“You never expect to put numbers together like that,” said Moore, who won his second consecutive Stagg Bowl Most Outstanding Player award. “This is what dreams are made of.”
The entire city of Salem could say the same. The mid-sized suburb of Roanoke has hosted the Division III championship game since 1993, and never has there been a larger crowd at Salem Stadium than Saturday’s standing-room only 7,992. Many purple-clad Raider fans made the trip from northeastern Ohio, but an estimated 5,000-plus were there to root on Bridgewater, located an hour north of Salem on I-81.
The crowd, which began tailgating nearly eight hours before the 8 p.m. kickoff, was treated to possibly the most exciting Stagg Bowl in the game’s 29-year history, though Mount Union’s 10-7 win over St. John’s (Minn.) last season could certainly qualify.
“This was one of the best Division III football games I’ve ever played in,” said Moore, who carried 47 times for 237 yards and three touchdowns in a Dec. 8 semifinal win over St. John’s. “It’s just an unbelievable feeling to walk out of here as a senior. Last year, when those seniors walked off the field, I felt great for them. Everyone should walk off like this.”
Bridgewater, which entered the game at 12-0, came awfully close to completing one of the most amazing runs in the history of college football. This year’s Eagle seniors, 0-10 as freshmen, put together the first back-to-back winning campaigns as well as the first two playoff appearances in 102 years of Bridgewater football.
They advanced to the Stagg Bowl through the most competitive playoff bracket, winning twice in the final 40 seconds and averaging 42.3 points per game in the postseason.
“I’m glad the way our kids fought,” said Bridgewater head coach Michael Clark, for whom four area players toil: Tight end Devin Thornton (Manassas Park), defensive back Steward White (Gar-Field), defensive lineman Lawrence Frierson (North Stafford) and holder Larry Scherer (Hylton).
The speedy Eagles struck first when Jason Lutz (14 of 32, 374 yards, 3 TD, 4 INT) connected with fellow senior Marcus Richardson for a 67-yard touchdown pass on the game’s first play from scrimmage. The Purple Raiders responded when Moore capped a six-play, 49-yard drive with a 3-yard score. Mount Union (14-0) used an interception return touchdown from linebacker Jason Perkins to extend their lead to 23-13 at the half.
Trailing 30-13 in the fourth period, Lutz found wide receiver Brian Ratliff on a 59-yard touchdown strike to close the gap to 10 with13:09 remaining. The Eagles forced a fumble on Mount Union’s ensuing drive, but wide receiver Andre Jones slipped on Bridgewater’s first play, allowing Mike Miller to step in, intercept Lutz and return the ball to the 9-yard line.
The Eagles came up with their second of three goal-line stops in the second half when Mount Union kicker Rodney Chenos missed a 33-yard field goal attempt. Bridgewater punted on its next possession and stopped Mount Union inside the 5-yard line again on downs.
Lutz scored on a 3-yard run with 1:55 left, but the Eagles could not recover an onside kick, and the Purple Raiders ran the clock out.
Bridgewater showed its explosiveness on offense, outgaining the Purple Raiders 516-454. The scrappy Ratliff, whose 11 catches before Saturday included last week’s game-winner as time expired, tallied a game-high seven receptions for 161 yards and two scores. The Eagles’ all-American running back Davon Cruz injured a rib in the first half, limiting his effectiveness.
Cruz said his not being able to run put added pressure on Lutz and the passing game.
The 5-foot-11, 222-pound Lutz who threw for nearly 2,500 and rushed for nearly 1,000 yards this season, had thrown only eight interceptions coming in. His four on Saturday were costly.
“They were kind of better than I thought in the defensive backfield,” said Lutz. “After that first play, I thought it might be easy pickings.”
“Instead of waiting for his game to come to him,” said Clark, “I thought he tried to force some things. But let me say one thing about Jason. We wouldn’t have sniffed this place if he wasn’t leading us.”
Mount Union claimed their fifth championship in six seasons and won their 82nd game in their past 83. Only a 1999 semifinal loss to Rowan in overtime interrupted that string.
“We lost to a great football team,” said Clark, whose team proved it belonged among the nation’s elite. “They have big players who make big plays in big games.”
No player played bigger than Moore, who completed coursework at the Alliance, Ohio school with a 3.85 GPA and is set to begin work as a stockbroker in January. He set records for rushing yards in a Stagg Bowl (273) and longest run (95). He also established Division III marks for yards (998) and carries (138), points (72) and touchdowns (12) in a postseason tournament.
“I have been lucky enough to play in three national championship games,” said Moore, won went 54-1 in his career and never lost a title game he played in. “I can honestly say it gets better and better every time. You never want to take winning for granted.”
A Salem crowd, unconcerned with BCS rankings or Heisman Trophy winners for an evening, showed their appreciation for Moore and the Purple Raiders with a post-game standing ovation.
“I hesitate to say I might never have an opportunity to coach another young man of his caliber,” said Mount Union head coach Larry Kehres, holding back tears. “Because I hope I do.”
The world of Division III football undoubtedly agrees.