Everything had changed, and nothing had changed.
The Purple Raiders had different players, a new head coach with the same last name and turf in its stadium instead of grass. Three years ago, the school Wittenberg fans remembered as Mount Union College even changed its name to the University of Mount Union.
So much seemed different from 2001, the last time the Tigers traveled to Alliance, especially when the Tigers grabbed 7-0 and 14-7 leads in the first quarter, yet Saturday’s result seemed so familiar. Wittenberg lost 56-21 in the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs. All these years later, the Mount is still insurmountable.
“It’s very frustrating,” senior quarterback Reed Florence said. “A play here and there, and it could have gone our way. We didn’t make plays in the second quarter and capitalize on some opportunities we had.”
Florence and the largest senior class in Wittenberg history trudged to the locker room after their second straight second-round exit. A large contingent of Wittenberg fans crowded around the tunnel to cheer a team that stood toe-to-toe with the defending national champions for 30 minutes.
One voice stood out above all the others. Senior defensive lineman Josh Montgomery’s mom, Connie Gamble, the most vocal fan of them all, chanted, “T-I-G-E-R-S!”
“You can always hear my mom in the stands,” Montgomery said. “Even for her, (the end’s) going to be rough. It’s kind of unreal right now.”
No. 12 Wittenberg (10-2) hoped to record what would have been considered the biggest victory in coach Joe Fincham’s 18-year tenure. Mount Union (12-0) knocked the Tigers out of the playoffs in 1998, 2000 and 2001 on its way to three national championships. That number climbed to 11 last season, the last for head coach Larry Kehres, whose son Vince took the reins this season.
The Tigers looked capable of the upset early. Florence drove the Tigers down the field on the first possession of the game and completed a 23-yard touchdown pass to his favorite target, Brendon Cunningham.
Mount Union answered on its first drive with the first of five touchdown passes by junior Kevin Burke, but Florence and Cunningham hooked up again on the Tigers’ second possession for a 40-yard score.
It looked as if the game would be a shootout, but Mount Union scored the next 28 points. The Tigers didn’t score again until six minutes left in the third quarter. Jimmy Dehnke’s 10-yard run cut the deficit to 35-21.
That was the last ray of hope. Mount Union put the game away by scoring touchdowns on its first three drives of the fourth quarter.
Two false-start penalties and a delay of game hurt Wittenberg on promising drives in the second quarter.
“We had two trips down where we were somewhere in the area of the 35-yard line, and you’re too close to punt,” Fincham said. “You’re in fourth-down territory. You feel you have shots to move the sticks and continue your drive and at least come away with three. We just had a couple of Mickey Mouse calls that went against us.”