GREAT START, POOR FIN­ISH

Mules take early lead in NCAA Divi­sion III quar­ter­fi­nal but are then out­played

The Morning Call (Sunday) - - SPORTS - By Bradley A. Hueb­ner

Muh­len­berg led 7-0 at No. 1 Mount Union just three and a half min­utes into the game on Satur­day.

But the Mules trailed 14-7 by half­time of the Divi­sion III foot­ball quar­ter­fi­nals.

Coach Nate Milne joked that he was hop­ing some­one would take a photo of the score­board af­ter Muh­len­berg quar­ter­back Mike Hnatkowsky hit Thomas Mur­phy on a 15-yard touch­down pass early.

Af­ter all, the Mules were bat­tling the 13-time na­tional cham­pion on their home turf. But as the Ohio rains fell, the Pur­ple Raiders (13-0) sys­tem­at­i­cally ad­vanced their lead in a 38-10 vic­tory that skewed an oth­er­wise com­pet­i­tive con­test.

Mount Union ad­vances to the semi­fi­nals against Cen­ten­nial Con­fer­ence cham­pion Johns Hop­kins, a 37-14 win­ner over RPI. The Pur­ple Raiders reached the NCAA semi­fi­nals for the 24th-straight sea­son.

Muh­len­berg ends its sea­son 11-2, with its only losses to two NCAA semi­fi­nal­ists — Johns Hop­kins and Mount Union — cham­pi­ons of the Cen­ten­nial and Ohio Ath­letic con­fer­ences, re­spec­tively. The 2018 Mules went fur­ther this sea­son than any team in school his­tory.

“They’re a team that I would ex­pect to see deep in the play­offs, year in and year out,” said Mount Union coach Vince Kehres, who is now 81-4 since tak­ing over for his fa­ther.

Muh­len­berg’s down­fall was that the Pur­ple Raiders turned the Mules’ strengths into weak­nesses. Muh­len­berg’s nor­mally sti­fling run de­fense al­lowed a ca­reer-high 219 yards and three touch­downs on a ca­reer-best 35 car­ries to sopho­more Josh Petruc­celli.

One telling statis­tic: Muh­len­berg’s top four tack­lers were lineback­ers or in the sec­ondary.

Play­ing ex­ten­sively out of the shot­gun Wild­cat for­ma­tion af­ter the start­ing quar­ter­back left the game to re­place a con­tact lens, Petruc­celli built mo­men­tum and pun­ished de­fend­ers, amass­ing 103 yards and two touch­downs in the fourth quar­ter alone.

The 5-foot-9, 210-pound sopho­more set the tone early fin­ish­ing runs by de­liv­er­ing hard hits, some­thing he en­joys.

“Our line was cre­at­ing a new

line of scrim­mage on al­most ev­ery play,” he said. “We were get­ting five yards a pop.”

And the Mules’ pass­ing game — which en­tered the game av­er­ag­ing 260 yards per game — strug­gled to con­nect in the rain. When re­ceivers found open space, like when Max Kirin was alone early near the Mules side­line only to have the ball sail over him, Hnatkowsky strug­gled with accuracy. When he hit re­ceivers, the ball slipped through hands or bounced off bod­ies, a prob­lem plagu­ing both teams in the mois­ture.

The Mules com­pleted 6 of 30 passes for 89 yards.

Mount Union man­aged just 69 yards on 11 of 24, with sev­eral com­ple­tions com­ing on short outs. All-Amer­i­can Justin Hill was kept in check, with four catches for 13 yards.

Muh­len­berg felt op­ti­mistic get­ting the ball to start the sec­ond half, down one score. Af­ter a quick three plays and punt, Mount Union rode a 30yard catch-and-run play to De­marco Haynes to the 17. The Mules stiff­ened, hold­ing the hosts to a field goal and 17-7 lead.

Af­ter squelch­ing the Raiders’ big plays in the first half, the Mules couldn’t main­tain.

With six min­utes left in the third quar­ter, Hnatkowsky tossed a short pass that al­lAmer­i­can de­fen­sive back Louis Berry jumped, picked and re­turned 20 yards for a touch­down, his fourth in five picks this year.

Lead­ing 24-7, Mount Union could ex­hale.

Though the fi­nal score re­vealed dom­i­na­tion, the game didn’t play that way.

Muh­len­berg will grad­u­ate four se­nior starters on de­fense and one on of­fense.

Post­sea­son in­ter­cep­tions

In­ter­cep­tions have been huge this post­sea­son. The team Muh­len­berg played last week (Ran­dolph-Ma­con Col­lege) was com­ing off a four-pick vic­tory. Last week, Mount Union jumped ahead of Cen­tre 51-7 at half­time with four in­ter­cep­tions.

Muh­len­berg turned in­ter­cep­tions into touch­downs the past two weeks.

Berry’s pick was one of three for Mount Union on Satur­day. He has three in­ter­cep­tion re­turns and one fum­ble re­turn for a touch­down in the past four weeks.

The Pur­ple Raiders, whose head coach fa­vors de­fense since he played de­fen­sive end, have scored a na­tional-best 13 de­fen­sive touch­downs this sea­son, seven on in­ter­cep­tion re­turns.

Berry, a savvy se­nior from Shady Side Academy, fin­ished sec­ond in the na­tional in­door 60-meter dash for Divi­sion III.

“It’s tough to pass in this kind of weather,” said Kehres. “Tough for quar­ter­backs, tough for re­ceivers. It be­comes a game where you have to run.”

Muh­len­berg gained 110 rush­ing yards, but the Mules also lost 47 on sacks and low snaps against an ath­letic de­fense guided by An­drew Roesch (two sacks, three tack­les for loss).

Ju­nior Mickey Kober led the Mules de­fense with 13 tack­les. Luke Wi­ley had two fum­ble re­cov­er­ies and seven tack­les. He also came close to in­ter­cept­ing two deep passes.

Great start

Muh­len­berg couldn’t have asked for a bet­ter start on Satur­day.

Their de­fense forced a Petruc­celli fum­ble on the sec­ond play. Wi­ley re­cov­ered .

Af­ter three run­ning plays and a punt, the Mule de­fense in­ter­cepted quar­ter­back D’An­gelo Ful­ford’s first pass at the Raiders’ 18.

Ful­ford had only thrown one

in­ter­cep­tion all year. The team hadn’t fum­bled in two play­off games. Petru­celli, a sopho­more, had never fum­bled at Mount Union.

On third down Hnatkowsky found Mur­phy on the side­line at the 8. Mur­phy turned up­field and scored for a 7-0 lead.

Field po­si­tion punts

Muh­len­berg punter Kevin Oli­fiers al­ter­nated with in­jured Joseph O’Ha­gan this sea­son. Each punted 24 times.

Oli­fiers punted six times for 232 yards on Satur­day. He boomed a 67 yarder that backed the Pur­ple Raiders up on their own 12. Three of his kicks pinned Mount Union in­side the 20.

Kick­ing from own his end zone, he pounded a 43-yarder that kept Mount Union out of deep Muh­len­berg ter­ri­tory.

Diggs it

James Diggs ran 14 times for 69 yards to give him 1,047 on the year. On one burst, he col­lided with a wall of de­fend­ers then car­ried them an ad­di­tional 20 yards.

BRETT DUN­BAR/CON­TRIB­UTED PHOTO

Muh­len­berg sopho­more James Diggs car­ries the ball as Mitch O’Hara closes in dur­ing Satur­day’s NCAA quar­ter­fi­nal game at Mount Union. Diggs rushed for 69 yards to go over 1,000 for the sea­son.

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