The 2016 NCAA Division 3 Football Playoffs have reached the penultimate week. Four teams remain as they vie for a spot in the Stagg Bowl. Both games will be played on Saturday, December 10 and can be seen on ESPN3. An updated bracket can be found here.
We correctly predicted 12 of the 16 first-round games and then went 6-2 with our second round predictions. In the quarterfinals, we selected three of the four winners to make our playoff record 21-7. Below are the predictions for the two semifinal games in order of kickoff time.
John Carroll (12-1) at Wisconsin-Oshkosh (12-1)
Game Time: 1 PM Eastern
John Carroll opened the playoffs with a straightforward 37-12 over Olivet at home. It was not perfect, but Anthony Moeglin threw for 262 yards with 4 touchdowns and a pick. The second-round game was also at home and they needed overtime to dispatch Wesley 20-17. Moeglin’s 14-yard pass to Anthony Leonetti ended the game and put the Blue Streaks in the quarterfinals.
John Carroll had to go on the road to face Wisconsin-Whitewater in the quarterfinals and they were impressive. They put up 17 points in the third quarter to take a 24-7 lead they were not close to relinquishing after that spurt. The defense allowed only 228 yards of offense to Whitewater and picked off Cole Wilber twice in the 31-14 win.
Wisconsin-Oshkosh started with an easy 49-13 win over Washington University after rushing for 410 yards of offense. The second round was closer as they won 31-14, but they put up big yards on the ground again (332). Their quarterfinal matchup was against St. Thomas (MN) on the road, a team that was the national runner up in 2015.
The rushing yardage dropped to 169 yards for the Titans, but they forced 8 (!) turnovers. They intercepted Alex Fenske 5 times and recovered all 3 fumbles they forced (including one by Fenske). It was a surprisingly high scoring game given the stingy defenses, but the Titans won 34-31 with Brett Kasper throwing for 237 yards and 3 touchdowns (no picks).
If this matchup seems familiar that is because these two schools met the opening week. That day, it was all Oshkosh as they built a 27-0 lead and cruised to a 33-14 victory. The Titans held John Carroll to 94 yards in the first half and their intensity on defense allowed them to build a sizable lead. Little did many people know (or even think) that game was a preview of a national semifinal later in the year.
Will we see a repeat of the week one game? Sure, it is possible, but this John Carroll team is different now. They are full of confidence after defeating both Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater on the road in the span three weeks. And who could blame them?
This feels like a defensive, grind it out battle. John Carroll has not allowed more than 230 yards in any of their playoff games (193.7 yards per game average). The offense is not overwhelming, but they are efficient in getting touchdowns in the red zone. They have scored 39 times in the red zone on 52 attempts this year. 36 of those scores went for touchdowns. They will need to convert those opportunities against Oshkosh.
Speaking of Oshkosh, they were taken out of their element against St. Thomas, yet still won. They had more passing yards than rushing yards for just the third time this year. The previous two? At Eau-Claire (48-13 win) and John Carroll opening week.
The Oshkosh offense has many options on offense: Brett Kasper (2,323 yards with 19 TDs and 6 picks) throwing the ball or a trio of runners in Dylan Hecker (1,039 yards and 16 TDs), Devon Linzenmeyer (806 yards and 10 TDs), and Mitch Gerhartz (455 yards and 3 TDs). John Carroll will have to stop all of them to win.
The ultimate question is who wins? The team that is very hot (John Carroll) or the team that has home-field advantage and won the earlier matchup (Wisconsin-Oshkosh)? We will go with John Carroll, the hot team, to win 20-17 to make their first Stagg Bowl.
Mount Union (12-1) at Mary Hardin-Baylor (13-0)
Game Time: 4:30 PM Eastern
Mount Union started the playoffs at Hobart and they had to fend off that pesky foe with the final 17 points of the game. Dom Davis threw for 321 yards with 1 touchdown and no picks in the 38-21 win. The second-round game was at Johns Hopkins and the Purple Raiders trailed 21-7 before scoring the final 21 points to win 28-21. Mount Union forced two turnovers and a fourth-down stop on Johns Hopkins’ last three drives to seal the victory.
The quarterfinal matchup was their third straight road game and the offense exploded. Dom Davis threw for 251 yards and 3 touchdowns along with 108 yards and another score on the ground. Bradley Mitchell rushed for 123 yards and 3 touchdowns on 15 carries in his first 100+ yard game since October 15. There was also defensive (Elijah Berry) and special teams (Brian Groves) touchdowns in the 70-45 route at Alfred.
Mary Hardin-Baylor started with a 50-28 win over Redlands though they needed a big final 20 minutes to put them away. Blake Jackson had 392 yards of offense and four total touchdowns in the victory. The second-round game was a 27-10 win over Linfield in an impressive defensive performance. They intercepted Sam Riddle twice and held him to 236 yards on 26 of 41 passing. They also held the Linfield offense from reaching the end zone as the lone touchdown allowed was a 75-yard punt return.
The Crusaders faced Wheaton (IL) in the quarterfinals and they had another strong defensive performance. They had a blocked punt recovered for a touchdown and a 32-yard pick-six by Raylon Hickey. They also forced two other picks and held the Thunder to 22 yards rushing on 26 carries. Markeith Miller had 142 yards and 1 touchdown rushing for Mary Hardin-Baylor.
This game is all about Mount Union’s rushing attack against Mary Hardin-Baylor’s defense. Mount Union averages 265.7 yards per game on the ground and they averaged 7 yards per carry against Alfred. That was their highest YPC average since their 66-7 demolition of Otterbein (6.6 yards per carry that game). The Cru allow 68.8 yards per game rushing and have only allowed more than 100 yards four times this year. Bradley Mitchell has 1,475 yards and 20 touchdowns this year, but he will have to play his best to help this offense move the ball.
If Mount Union is forced to throw, they better be careful because the Cru have intercepted 29 passes this season. Dom Davis has 2,080 yards passing (65.6%) with 21 touchdowns against 6 interceptions. Arguably his worst game was against John Carroll (31-28 loss) when he threw for 247 yards and 3 touchdowns, but had 2 interceptions, completed only 19 of 39 passing, and took 7 sacks. If he has to pass a lot, he will need to be smart by throwing the ball away instead of forcing passes and taking sacks.
Mary Hardin-Baylor on offense will be a force to stop, but if any team can do it, it would be Mount Union. Blake Jackson has thrown for 2,952 yards with 34 touchdowns against 7 interceptions. He also has 708 yards and 9 touchdowns rushing while Markeith Miller has run for 1,444 yards and 20 touchdowns. T.J. Josey is the top receiver with 48 catches for 1,004 yards and 8 touchdowns, but Bryce Wilkerson (43 catches for 612 yards and 9 TDs), DeNerian Thomas (42 catches for 362 yards and 4 TDs), and Wykeyhe Walker (32 catches for 436 yards and 6 TDs) will see some passes thrown their way.
Mount Union’s defense allows 300.2 yards per game and just 66.8 yards per game on the ground. They have forced just 24 turnovers, however, they have recorded 51 sacks and 7 defensive touchdowns this year. They will need to keep both Jackson and Miller in check if they are to win their fourth straight playoff game on the road.
If Mary Hardin-Baylor is to defeat Mount Union, this is the perfect time, right? This is not the strongest Mount Union team and, more importantly, they get Mount Union at home after three straight road playoff games. This is THE time for the Cru to get back to the Stagg Bowl for just the second time in school history (2004). But this is Mount Union. There is a reason they have played in 11 straight Stagg Bowls: they are really good. Every. Single. Year.
It is tough to go against the defending champions, but we will. We like Mary Hardin-Baylor to win 31-28 and reach the Stagg Bowl for the first time since 2004. However, we know that going against Mount Union is a dangerous proposition and they could easily make this prediction look foolish.
Check back next week for a preview of the 2016 Stagg Bowl.