Two years ago, when they were sophomores, Wittenberg quarterback Reed Florence and wide receiver Brendon Cunningham traveled with their dads to Alliance, Ohio, to watch Wabash play Mount Union in the quarterfinals of the Division III playoffs.
They talked to some Wabash fans. They sat on the Wabash side. On rare occasions, you’re allowed to root for your greatest rival. This was one of those times.
“We wanted to see Wabash win,” Florence said. “We wanted to see a good game, too.”
A good game involving Division III powerhouse Mount Union typically means the Purple Raiders won by less than 20 — or something like that. The typical measuring sticks don’t apply to Mount Union, a program that has won 11 national titles, has suffered only four losses in the last eight seasons — all in the national championship game — and won 22 Ohio Athletic Conference championships in a row.
Mount Union is just as its name suggests, a mountain. Climbing Everest barefoot would be about as easy as beating Mount. Wabash lost 20-8 that day, a respectful score.
“We just wanted to see what both teams had,” Florence said. “We knew Wabash was a good team. They both matched up well. If a ball bounced (Wabash’s) way, it could have been a different game game against Mount.”
There’s no doubt Southeastern High School grad Florence and Fairmont High alum Cunningham saw the future that day. They hoped to get the chance Wabash got: a shot to take down the giant.
Two years after that game, and 12 years after Wittenberg last played Mount Union, that opportunity has arrived. No. 12 Wittenberg (10-1) routed Lebanon Valley 59-17 in the first round Saturday behind six touchdown passes by Florence at Edwards-Maurer Field and will play at No. 1 Mount Union (11-0) at noon Saturday.
“We wanted to see them in the Stagg Bowl,” Florence said. “We’re going to see them a little earlier, which is nice. Hopefully, we can go up there and compete with them. They’re like Alabama in Division I. Everyone wants that chance. Finally, we get that chance. Hopefully, we can capitalize on that.”
Florence and his fellow seniors could never have known if they would get a chance to play Mount Union, but in a way, they’ve been preparing for this game for much longer than the six days of preparation they have this week. Not only did Florence and Cunningham travel to Alliance in 2011, they and a number of teammates also played against Mount Union this summer in a 7-on-7 players-only scrimmage.
“You can’t really tell without an offensive line and no running game,” Florence said, “but we matched up well with them.”
At one point, Wittenberg matched up just fine with Mount Union. Between 1916 and 1975, Wittenberg won 17 of the 20 games. Since 1984, Mount Union has won seven of the eight games. The last three came in the national quarterfinals.
The 1998 game was the closest. Wittenberg lost 21-19 and will forever lament a late holding call that wiped out a 41-yard run by Casey Donaldson. Trailing by two, the Tigers would have had first down at the Mount Union 10-yard line with 10 minutes left.
Two years later, Wittenberg fell behind 26-6 and lost 32-15. Twelve years ago, in the last game between the two winningest programs in the history of NCAA Division III, Wittenberg lost 49-21.
What coach Joe Fincham said before that game still rings true this week.
“Everybody’s got a plan until you get punched in the nose,” Fincham said. “You go up there and say, ‘We can play with them.’ Then what happens after you go through one of their barrages where you give up some points? Are you able to fight your way off the canvas, or do you kind of hang your head? You have to be able to respond to adversity and fight your way through some hard times.”